In the abortion world, the Lovejoy Surgicenter in Portland, Oregon, is famous. Over 4,000 abortions took place there in 1995, making it one of the highest-volume such clinics in the country. Lovejoy's doctors perform abortions as late as 25 weeks into pregnancy, and the center has been a favorite object of picketing, "rescues," and other anti-abortion activity.

Journalist Peter Korn explores this subject in Lovejoy: A Year in the Life of an Abortion Clinic (Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages, $ 22). The book is not exactly reading for a quiet hour by the fire. Indeed, it seems destined to be read mainly by pro-choice activists, for Korn portrays the clinic's staff as on the side of the angels.

Opponents of abortion are profiled, too. One is Shelley Shannon, who firebombed the center. She is now in prison for the attempted murder of an abortion doctor in another state. Another opponent is Andrew Burnett of Advocates for Life. He publishes a newsletter that encourages Shelley Shannon's brand of violence.

It is against this canvas that Lovejoy's officials are painted. We meet owner and administrator Allene Klass, along with her chief counselor and heir apparent Carye Ortman. Korn shows them as caring, compassionate, intelligent, humorous, courageous -- right out of The Book of Virtues. He dwells distractingly on Klass's "jet black Jaguar" and her collection of short skirts and fitted suits, which contrast with the dull, regimental women's wear of the anti-abortionists. We learn that Ortman drives a Volvo and that she owns a handgun, for protection against zealots. Her husband jokes that she must be the only gun-toting Volvo driver in America.

Ortman was brought up a Christian fundamentalist, but she now sees life in shades of gray. To a client who harbors doubts about her scheduled abortion, she offers therapy-speak: "To look at something from a moral point of view, that's a good thing. It's really important to know that you're going to let yourself know the sadness and the grief."

The occasional medical emergency and attendant human drama carry the reader along, much as in Rescue 911 or on Oprah. But there are problems with the author's larger project of humanizing the abortion business. He tries to present the center's doctors in soothing pastels, but reality reins him in. Take medical director Harold Suchak, whom Korn sets up as a convert to family values. After sacrificing a first marriage to the hours of a busy ob/gyn, Suchak cut back to a 20-hour week at Lovejoy, which allowed him to continue making $ 300,000 a year while paying lower insurance premiums than doctors handling live babies. And Suchak is not much help to the muddled middle of Americans who are unhappy about abortion but unsure how to limit it -- though he has been known to decline to abort a 25-week-old fetus because "this one is a baby to me."

If the book has a major failing, it is its wearily familiar premise that if we just try to understand one another, we can work out our differences. This kind of understanding may be useful in interpersonal relations or in "hating the sin while loving the sinner," but it is useless when it comes to reaching conclusions about right and wrong.

Most of the clients profiled in Lovejoy are in a bad way. Many are young and scared; some are the victims of brutal boyfriends or domineering parents. The proper question is not whether we should care about them, but what we should do about them. To "feel" their pain is insufficient; it does not direct us to do the right thing to alleviate that pain, as witness Jack Kevorkian's seeming acts of mercy. Unleashed from the moorings of reason and conscience, compassion can be deadly.

Richard Brookhiser met this problem head-on in a recent issue of Human Life Review. Men, he noted, are more naturally "pro-choice" than women. They lack the maternal instinct, and it is the woman -- the lover, sister, daughter, friend -- rather than the baby who engages their hearts and imaginations. "As a biological bystander," he wrote, "I have a clear choice between pre-borns I have never met, and women I have." But "the element missing from purely emotional analysis is thought. The missing thought in this case is that you don't kill innocent human beings."

Peter Korn's book is loaded with sympathetic stories and sympathetic people. Lovejoy seems at times to be run by Mother Teresa's nuns. But what is his point? That people with charitable impulses shouldn't be shot at or firebombed? That people capable of admirable actions shouldn't be picketed? That, after reading this book, we should be less troubled by a million-plus abortions per year?

The book lacks a point altogether, if by point we mean a rational argument or a principled defense. Korn merely wants us to feel warm, fuzzy feelings for one another, while agreeing that abortion is a complex issue best left to the women who end up at places like Lovejoy and the Dr. Suchaks they encounter there.

Ellen Wilson Fielding is a columnist for Crisis magazine.

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