Then-House Speaker John McCormack came out of his Capitol office one day, took me by the arm and led me aside to comment on the loss of a an important ally in the midterm elections. “It was the abortion thing,” the wise old Massachusetts Democrat said. “It’s going to become a nasty issue before it’s over and it’s going to change the political landscape.” He shook his head and added: “It is something that government should stay out of.”

More than three decades later, McCormack’s warning years before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling has become fact as abortion is now the emotional driving force, the central domestic political issue that supersedes nearly all other concerns, from immigration to the economy. The only thing that seems to come close to generating the same controversy is gun control.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee begins confirmation hearings for the latest nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Joseph Alito, in January, the only question that really matters to friends and foes alike will be how he stands on Roe, the decision that freed women from the back-alley quacks and midwifes who were responsible for an untold number of deaths over the decades when artificially terminating a pregnancy was illegal.

Alito is not expected to answer directly, and already has tried to explain away a youthful paper in which he expressed doubt the Constitution guaranteed a woman the right to an abortion. He said it was a position that was aimed at helping him get a job in the Reagan administration. Nevertheless, opponents already have seized on that early declaration as evidence that, if confirmed, he would vote to overturn Roe. At the same time, he has made conservative supporters nervous by a recent remark indicating that he now believes Roe is a viable stance. Both sides of the question are prepared to spend millions of dollars on promoting or defeating his confirmation.

Probably no other issue in the history of American politics is more fraught with emotional rancor and often peril than this one. The divisiveness that results from it has changed the political landscape and fueled, among other things, battles over long-established doctrine over the separation of church and state. Conservatives and evangelists, Catholic and Protestant, seem to care about little else. Last year, Catholic figures all but ordered their congregants not to vote for Democratic Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, for president because of his abortion position.

Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a former head of the House Republican Campaign Committee, said recently that if Roe were overturned, there would be a sea change in the way suburban Republicans voted, indicating that a huge number of women and probably their husbands would leave the party. Nothing, he said, is more polarizing than this issue.

Should this be our domestic political focus? Should the enormous problems this nation faces in trade and health care and budget overages be sublimated to a handful of cultural concerns led by abortion? What is more important to the well-being of Americans _ bringing down the skyrocketing costs of medical care, or worrying about whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed in public buildings or whether a reference to God should be in the Pledge of Allegiance? Why should any candidate for major public office, particularly one who is a male, be debating a problem that is strictly a woman’s?

Abortion is a health and moral issue. It is not a political one, and those who would make it so are doing a real injustice to tens of millions of citizens who have far more important concerns, like providing for their old age in the face of a burgeoning pension deficit or coming up with enough money to send youngsters to school and still finance their own health care. Somewhere in the Bible it says something about leaving what is Caesar’s to Caesar and what is God’s to God. It is good counsel, although it is increasingly unheeded by those who believe the nation should be run on the moral code they have set for themselves.

The Irish John McCormack most assuredly belonged to a religion that unequivocally opposes abortion. There is no doubt that he himself did. But he was wise enough to see its potential disruptiveness to political order and to know that this was an issue better left to the consciences of Americans and their moral counselors. Roe has been the law of the land for 32 years. One can only imagine the carnage, figuratively and literally, that would likely result from its demise.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)