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Mr. McCain has a 0 rating from the group. Even so, he does not line up with all pro-life positions because he would allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or to protect the mother’s life.

When asked - during an Aug. 16 forum at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. - when life begins, the senator from Arizona responded, “At the moment of conception.” To audience applause, he added, “I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate.

“And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies.”

Mr. Obama hedged on the question, saying the answer is “above my pay grade.”

He said the rate of abortions did not decline during the eight years of the Bush administration. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, however, reported that 108,600 fewer abortions were performed during President Bush’s fifth year in office (2005) than during President Clinton’s last year (2000). The data used allowed each president significant time in the office for any effects to take shape.

In September, the Guttmacher Institute said the rate of U.S. abortions - 2.1 million a year or 5,753 a day - is at its lowest level since 1974.

All this keeps it a front-and-center issue in U.S. politics.

“I have stated time after time after time that Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, that I support a woman - the rights of the unborn - that I have fought for human rights and human dignity throughout my entire political career,” Mr. McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2007. “To me, it’s an issue of human rights and human dignity.”

The two men parried on the topic during the third presidential debate at Hofstra University on Oct. 15, when Mr. Obama said he supports legal restrictions to late-term abortions, as long as there is a “health of the mother” exception.

“He’s ‘health for the mother,’” Mr. McCain responded sarcastically. “You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.”

Neither of the candidates differ significantly on stem-cell research, the other hot bioethics issue of the day. Mr. Obama supports federal financing of embryonic-stem-cell research and co-sponsored the 2005 Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which Mr. Bush vetoed.

Mr. McCain’s position is more nuanced. Although he too supports federal financing for experiments on cells that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, he also opposes the creation of embryos for research. He told Catholic News Service in January that he hopes the issue will become theoretical, given advances in obtaining stem cells from skin cells.