PLANNED Parenthood affiliates have prevented more abortions than many so-called "pro-life" organizations ever will.

I repeat: Planned Parenthood and other family-planning organizations are leaders in preventing abortions - no matter how many restrictions the anti-abortion movement constructs against legal abortion, no matter how many times they march on Washington as they did yesterday, the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

It's family-planning services, plus honest, comprehensive information about sex, that prevents the unintended pregnancies that create the need for legal abortion. The operative word here is "need." As Catholics for a Free Choice puts it in an ad running in presidential caucus and primary states, "Nobody wants to need an abortion." But many women still do, and when they do, protecting their decision is a moral imperative.

Yet we live passively with a contradiction that defies reason and morality: Many anti-abortion groups oppose family planning services and comprehensive sex education. Other "pro- life" groups remain "neutral" on the subject of birth control, quotation marks intended. Many of the loudest opponents of abortion are disingenuous about their opposition to the most effective means of preventing abortions. Their sole solution for people who want to plan their pregnancies: abstinence for unmarried people and, for those who are married, also abstinence.

So now, with not enough fanfare, comes congressional legislation promoting contraception, comprehensive sexuality education and research. This approach often is called "common ground" even though it's ground abortion-rights advocates have been standing on all along. It's maddening that so many people who claim to be against abortions refuse to move toward that "common ground"- but those who do deserve large measures of shared credit.

One of them is our own U.S. senator, Bob Casey, a co-sponsor of the Unintended Pregnancy Reduction Act. Casey is unswerving in his religion-based view against legal abortion but has courageously parted company with the Catholic position against contraception, as well as the policies of his father, who as governor blocked state funding for contraceptive services.

Even as Casey drew opposition from many pro-choice activists in his 2006 Senate race, his support for birth control cost him right-wing and Catholic support against Rick Santorum, the very model of the "anti-choice, anti-prevention" activist.

EVEN IF WE don't believe fetuses are persons entitled to equal rights with the women carrying them, most pro-choice Americans respect fetal life as they respect all life. They are concerned that there is a need for 1.2 million abortions a year. According to a recent study, that's the lowest number since the 1970s, but still a troubling figure.

Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, tells me that more pro-life people than I thought stand on that "common ground" of prevention.

Many see it as a social-justice issue: Low-income women are four times more likely to face unintended pregnancy than higher-income women. And low-income women are four times more likely to have abortions than higher-income women. In fact, between 1994 and 2002, abortion rates decreased among higher-income women while they increased among low-income women.

It is only right and just to make birth-control information, and contraception itself, easy and inexpensive to obtain for the low-income women who face so many barriers of information, access and affordability in every aspect of their lives.

Catholics for a Free Choice wants to make the idea of "Prevention not Prohibition" part of the presidential campaign. One of its ads says it all: "Picture a world where safe and reliable birth control is affordable and everyone uses it. Where the decision to become a parent is made responsibly. Where parents have easy access to child care. Where people have health care whether or not they have a job . . . In this world, abortions aren't illegal. They're prevented. Isn't that the best choice of all?"

So far, most pro-choice and pro-prevention candidates have been quiet on the abortion issue. Perhaps when unintended pregnancy is reframed as an issue of economic and social justice, they will find their voices.

Praying with the News: Let us pray for the success of the Israeli Relief Convoy to Gaza, a coalition of Israeli peace organizations that this Saturday will attempt to bring water filters to Gaza, where Israeli restrictions on fuel and electricity have resulted in the loss of safe drinking water. Amen. *

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer who was a long-time member of the Daily News editorial board. E-mail her at