How do you convince college students that abortion is not a black-and-white issue but one with many shades of gray? That was the task we freshmen set before ourselves 20 years ago.

Our Religion 101 class had been split into three groups, each assigned a hot-button social issue and challenged to present the topic in various ways.

In our abortion group, a prolife member displayed a photo of an aborted fetus and spoke of her faith. A prochoice member, and the son of a doctor who performed abortions, explained the procedure and passed around the tiny instrument he used. Talk about two ends of the spectrum.

My three-member team took a different tack: to engage the class in role-playing. Even as 18-year-olds we felt strongly that there were many sides to this issue.

To begin, we asked each classmate to find a partner of the opposite sex and then sent the guys into the hall. While a teammate gave the men their instructions, I told the women roughly this:

"That guy out in the hall you just met? Today, we're going to imagine that the two of you hooked up at a party not long ago. You got friendly, one thing led to another and now he's pregnant." I paused. "He's pregnant."

A few women giggled. I smiled. It did sound funny saying those words out loud. "Not only that, but he plays on the football team and must break the news to his teammates and coach. In a few minutes, he's going to break the news to you."

The guys' task: First, to tell their female partners. Second, to determine, with or without her, what to do next. The sweatshirt-and-jean crowd shuffled into the room and took up their places opposite the women. Each couple was given 10 minutes to discuss, and, amazingly, their conversations covered every nuance in the abortion debate. Some couples began discussing raising the child or placing the child up for adoption. A few women took on a stereotypical male response: "It's yours to deal with. You should have been on birth control." Some guys took seriously what it might feel like to face this alone.

Then we changed partners and the situation. Now the couples were married and expecting a baby with severe birth defects. What to do?

For our third role-playing topic, we informed the couples that their baby sitter had just confided in them that she was the victim of incest -- and pregnant. How would they advise her?

Today, while abortion remains a hot-button issue, an increasing number of Americans, both prolife and prochoice, have begun to talk, to find common ground, to focus on lessening the number of unwanted pregnancies through sex education and greater availability of contraception.

Not the Bush administration. Indeed, if it has its way, a proposed rule from the Department of Health and Human Services would require that any employee of a federally financed health-care entity -- private physician, hospital or state government -- could refuse to assist in any medical services they find objectionable. Moreover, because these services aren't defined, they could include birth control, emergency contraception, an HIV test and, of course, abortion.

No doubt McCain-Palin would agree. McCain has already stated his determination to overturn Roe vs. Wade. And Palin, a champion of abstinence-only education, says she would "choose life" even in the case of rape or incest.

During the next four years, three new slots on the Supreme Court are likely to open. If the McCain-Palin ticket wins, Roe vs. Wade will probably be overturned, and there will be no room for any shades of gray.

Karin B. Miller, St. Louis Park, is editor of the national anthology, "The Cancer Poetry Project."