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With six female candidates for statewide and national office sharing a forum dais Thursday night, it was inevitable they would eventually get to one of the most divisive topics of this election year: abortion.

And by the end of the charged, emotional discussion, some of the candidates and women in the audience were choking back tears.The forum, sponsored by the Women Lawyers of Utah, the American Women's Society of Certified Public Accountants, Utah Women's Forum and Women in Communications, followed the Ninth Annual Professional Women's Dinner and drew about 400 professional Utah women.

Featured guests were Enid Greene and Karen Shepherd, the Republican and Democratic candidates for the 2nd Congressional District; Jan Graham, Democratic candidate for attorney general; and Paula Julander, Olene Walker and Frances Hatch Merrill, the Democratic, Republican and Independent candidates for lieutenant governor.

Media attorney and law professor Kate Lahey moderated the panel and posed questions on universal health care, affirmative action, the proposed federal Family Leave Act, domestic violence, the record of outgoing Attorney General Paul Van Dam and religious liberty.

But the topic that has driven debate and campaigns around the nation again took center stage.

Greene said voters should understand that the proposed federal Freedom of Choice Act goes beyond codifying the protections guaranteed in the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision.

She opposes the proposal. "I believe that our society has an interest in protecting the life of unborn children," she said, adding that abortions should be allowed only in the case of rape or incest, if the woman's life is endangered or if there is grave fetal deformity.

Shepherd said she would want her daughter to be able to make her own decision on whether to end an unwanted pregnancy, and drew prolonged applause when she added, "I would not want a bunch of career politicians to make that decision."

Respect for life isn't the issue, she said. "The issue is, can we live in a society where the act of abortion is illegal?"

With an estimated 200,000 women dying worldwide each year from illegal abortions, "Women will not be denied this choice, whether it is legal or illegal," she said.

Merrill, acknowledging the response to Shepherd's comments, told the audience they would not like what she had to say, and she appeared to be right. No one applauded when she said choices should be made before a woman becomes pregnant, and added, "We cannot whine and cry afterward."

Julander told a moving story about a time she worked as public health nurse in North Carolina when abortions were illegal. A mother of three bled to death after ending a pregnancy that resulted from rape.

"As we wheeled her off to the morgue, we took three little girls to foster homes," Julander said. "Abortion will never end. It must be safe and legal."

Walker, fighting tears, said, "I find no more divisive issue than this, because every one of you has made up her mind. (But) we can't let it become the sole issue, a divisive issue."

Because there is an accepted, important societal norm regarding the value of life, "I cannot say I support abortion," she said.

And that means she must bear a tremendous responsibility to work on behalf of children and women that society is not now caring for, she said, drawing loud applause.