“I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away,” Obama said. “No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable,” he told graduates.
“Each 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.”
Obama’s commencement address marked his most direct remarks on abortion as president – and he delivered them at the nation’s flagship Catholic university, where his appearance sparked protests. But while he often drew on his personal experiences to make his points and highlight his respect for Catholicism, Obama never substantively addressed why he believes a woman has the right to abortion.
Still, it wasn’t long into his speech before Obama touched on the issue that has defined his commencement invitation. He asked in a rhetorical way – a constitutional law professor in him coming out - how people can adhere to principles and fight for what they believe in, “without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side,” Obama said:
“Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.”
Obama’s speech was all about the rhetoric. Obama made the call for “common ground” three times and said that only comes “when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do.”
“That’s when we begin to say, ‘Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions,’” Obama said. “So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.”
But he steered clear of a direct defense of his decision to reverse a Bush-era ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
He called for an effort to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women,” Obama said.
Obama plans to revise a Bush-era “conscience clause,” which would cut off federal funding for hospitals and health plans that didn’t allow doctors and other health-care workers to refuse to participate in care they believe conflicts with their personal or moral beliefs. Women’s health advocates and abortion rights supporters say it creates a major obstacle to family planning and other treatments.
Notre Dame’s invitation for Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address stirred up a controversy the moment the president accepted in March. Some anti-abortion students started a campaign against Obama’s speech, gathering more than 300,000 signatures on an online petition. And anti-abortion groups joined in the fight, which had worked into a full lather on Sunday.
But despite the controversy, Obama received a very warm welcome when he entered the Joyce Center at Notre Dame. Some students stood on their chairs. Others snapped photographs. The provost, Thomas Burih, paused three times for students to continue giving Obama applause. Obama waved to the crowd and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Even so, the divergent views Obama addressed in his remarks were on display among the graduates and family members in the audience at Joyce Center. Some students put the image of a cross and two small feet on their graduation caps to denote their protest. Others anti-abortion students and their parents wore white carnations on their lapels.
And as Obama spoke a few dozen students were holding a separate ceremony in protest. Dueling protests were held near the Notre Dame campus, although Obama’s motorcade did not see them as he arrived at the university.
“The preference would have been to have a speaker whose views are in line with the Catholic Church,” said Carol Govea, who attended her son Stephen’s graduation but wore a white carnation on her lapel in silent protest of Obama’s presence.
But support for Obama seemed to dominate in the crowd. Some students had Obama’s campaign symbol on their caps. Others wore “Yes We Can” or “44th President” buttons. For them, this was an important moment that anti-abortion activists sought to ruin.
“There’s a case for people being upset, maybe,” said anti-abortion graduate Connor Nowalk, 21, who voted for Obama. “But they’re taking what should be a celebration for us as graduates and turning it into a circus.”
Graduate Ryan Oakley, 22, who also said he is anti-abortion and voted for Obama, said abortion is a big issue in the Catholic Church, “but it’s not what defines Obama.”
“I’m very happy with what he’s going to do with the rest of the world,” he said.
The abortion debate, like other social issues where passions run strong on both sides, is one Obama has tried to avoid since he was a candidate for the presidency. The tone of his remarks on Sunday mirrored much of what he has said on the issue over the past two years.
But in attempt to lead by example when calling for those on both sides of the abortion issue to tone down their passions, Obama highlighted a personal story.
“As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign,” Obama said. He spoke of a time he wrote about in his book “The Audacity of Hope,” when a doctor told him he’d voted for him in the primary but would not in the general election because his Web site vowed he would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.”
The doctor was offended, Obama said.
“He wrote, ‘I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words,’” Obama said, noting that “when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do – that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
Obama also used his speech to draw a personal connection between himself and his key constituency.
“This tradition of cooperation and understanding is one that I learned in my own life many years ago – also with the help of the Catholic Church,” Obama said before elaborating on his work with Catholic churches as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago.
“It was through this service that I was brought to Christ,” Obama said.