President Obama this week plunged into the national debate over abortion, calling for “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words” in pursuit of “common ground.” In a commencement address at Notre Dame University that was briefly interrupted by hecklers, Obama said that while pro-choice and pro-life positions can never be completely reconciled, Americans must learn to debate “without reducing those with differing views to caricature.” Despite the gulf over abortion, Obama said, “we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.” Both sides, he said, can work to reduce the number of abortions, by preventing unwanted pregnancies and promoting adoption.
Dozens of Catholic bishops had denounced the Catholic university for honoring the pro-choice president with the invitation and an honorary degree. But Notre Dame President John Jenkins, introducing Obama to the crowd of 12,000, said the goal was to “seek to foster dialogue with all people of goodwill, regardless of faith, background, or perspective.” The graduates and their families greeted Obama with enthusiastic applause, while 300 people protested outside the front gate; 39 were arrested.
Obama deserves credit for not ducking this divisive issue, said the Chicago Sun-Times in an editorial. We’ve grown so accustomed to cynical exploitation of abortion and other culture-war issues, it’s hard to believe that Obama actually can change the tenor of public debate. But by speaking of his opponents respectfully and “showing the human side of both sides,” he just may have helped us turn a corner.
For devout Catholics, said Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review Online, there’s no other side to “the sanctity of human life.” The church believes that abortion is murder—period. Notre Dame wasn’t engaging in “meaningful dialogue” with Obama, it was giving him a platform. In doing so, this iconic Catholic institution betrayed the victims of abortion, as surely as honoring a white supremacist would betray the victims of slavery and oppression.
By condemning the president in such vitriolic, and overtly partisan language, said David Gibson in The Washington Post, conservatives within the church will only continue to lose ground. Their black-and-white views of abortion, priestly celibacy, and birth control are out of sync with most American Catholics’. With his call for understanding and humility, Obama articulates “a vision that resonates more genuinely with American Catholics than the pronouncements of the church’s high-decibel spokesmen.”