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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Obama in Notre Dame Speech Calls for 'Open Hearts, Open Minds' in Abortion-Rights Debate

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Obama in Notre Dame Speech Calls for 'Open Hearts, Open Minds' in Abortion-Rights Debate
[May 18, 2009]

In his address at the University of Notre Dame's commencement ceremony on Sunday, President Obama urged advocates on both sides of the abortion-rights debate to treat each other with civility and find ways to work together on common goals, such as reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, the New York Times reports. Obama, who also received an honorary degree from the Roman Catholic university, called for more "open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words" on an issue that has long polarized the U.S. Obama said that although not all will agree on abortion rights, people "can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually" and "has both moral and spiritual dimension." He continued, "So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions," by reducing unintended pregnancies, making "adoption more available," and providing "care and support" to women who carry pregnancies to term. Obama also said he supports a "sensible conscience clause" that would allow health care workers to withhold services they find morally or religiously objectionable, the New York Times reports. The president said that "[e]ach side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature" (Baker/Saulny, New York Times, 5/18).

According to the Wall Street Journal, Notre Dame's invitation to Obama "amplified longstanding tensions" between the Catholic Church's position against abortion rights and Catholic universities' academic freedom. Several Catholic bishops and antiabortion-rights advocates argued that it was wrong to honor Obama because of his support for abortion rights, while the university's leadership and others said it is necessary to communicate with people of opposing views (Meckler, Wall Street Journal, 5/18). Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, in his introduction of Obama praised the president for agreeing to speak at the ceremony. He said that although some individuals "might have avoided this venue" because of the abortion issue, Obama "is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him" (Evans, USA Today, 5/18). Jenkins also said, "If we want to extend courtesy, respect and love and enter into dialogue, then surely we can start by acknowledging what is honorable in others" (Dinan, Washington Times, 5/18).

The New York Times reports that about 100 abortion-rights opponents protested on the edge of Notre Dame's campus, and nearly 40 protesters were arrested trying to enter the campus (New York Times, 5/18). According to the Washington Post, more than 70 Catholic bishops criticized the university's invitation, and more than 360,000 people signed a petition calling for the university to rescind the invite. The Post also reports that 26 of the 2,900 graduates chose to skip the commencement ceremony in protest of Obama's speech (Shear, Washington Post, 5/18). However, the bulk of the audience at the ceremony "enthusiastically supported" the president, the New York Times reports. A few graduates pasted crosses and replicas of infants' feet on their mortarboards in protest of Obama's visit, while some supporters displayed Obama's campaign logo. Four protesters interrupted the speech with shouting and were removed by security guards; audience members responded to the shouting with Notre Dame chants and shouts of "Yes, we can," an Obama campaign slogan.

The New York Times reports that while Obama has tried to avoid confrontation on the issue of abortion rights, the controversy over this Notre Dame speech and his pending nomination to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter have "pushed the issue to the forefront" (New York Times 5/18). Obama's speech comes as his administration initiates its first meetings between advocates on both sides of the debate to discuss ways to reduce unintended pregnancies and the need for abortion. The meetings, which began at the beginning of May, are expected to continue for the next few months, with a proposal by late summer.

Recent statistics show that national opinion on abortion rights is closely divided. A new Gallup poll shows that 51% of U.S. adults consider themselves "pro-life," compared with 42% who consider themselves "pro-choice." Gallup said it is the first time a majority identified themselves as "pro-life" since the question was first asked in 1995 (McCormick/Brachear, Los Angeles Times, 5/17). Similarly, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that public opinion on the issue is more closely divided than it has been in the recent past. The latest polling by the center found that 28% of respondents said that abortion should be legal in most cases, while 18% said it should be legal in all cases. Additionally, 44% said they are opposed to abortion in most cases (Pace, AP/Boston Globe, 5/17).

NPR Segments Examine Abortion Debate, Obama's Speech

NPR's "All Things Considered" on Friday examined abortion-rights issues Obama likely will face in the coming weeks and months, including 13 government appropriations bills that could include restrictions on abortion, such as the Hyde Amendment (Rovner, "All Things Considered, NPR, 5/15). "All Things Considered" on Friday also examined the controversy surrounding the President's speech at Notre Dame (Schaper, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/15). On Sunday, the program included a discussion with reporter Rebecca Roberts about Obama's speech (Horsley, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/17).