Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly described the University of Notre Dame as the nation's largest Catholic university.

Antiabortion Protesters Converge on Notre Dame Before Obama's Visit

By Peter Slevin and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

SOUTH BEND, Ind., May 12 -- As some students kicked a soccer ball and others stretched out on the bountiful lawns of the University of Notre Dame, the peace of a sunny graduation-week afternoon was broken by the incessant buzz of an airplane engine overhead.

Churning in circles above the slate rooftops and the famous golden statue of the Virgin Mary, a small plane towed a banner depicting the remains of an aborted fetus and the words "10 Week Abortion."

The graphic message is directed at President Obama, who will arrive Sunday to a campus that has been jolted by abortion opponents who object to the pro-abortion-rights Democrat delivering a commencement address at the nation's largest Catholic university.

The protests come at a time when the antiabortion movement is increasingly splintered amid a debate over goals and tactics. The activists' cause has been complicated by Obama, who has sought to ease tensions over an issue that has dogged politicians on the right and left for nearly three decades.

Antiabortion activists see Obama's appearance before 2,603 graduates and the national media as a chance to challenge the president on turf hospitable to their cause.

Daily protests have begun outside the university gates. Promoters are issuing radio appeals to activists, inviting them to be arrested on Friday and Saturday in acts of civil disobedience.

At least 74 Catholic bishops criticized the invitation to Obama by Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, and more than 360,000 people signed a petition calling for Obama to be disinvited because of his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

"It is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation," said Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He called the decision an "extreme embarrassment" to "many, many Catholics."

On campus, students expressed distaste for the methods of antiabortion hard-liners Randall Terry and Alan Keyes, who are leading the protests. They also described a sense of pride that Notre Dame chose Obama.

"It cheapens the argument. As someone who is pro-life, I don't respect it," Mary Teresa Disipio, 20, said as the plane circled above her. Her friends are split on Obama's appearance, but she believes it will be "amazing."

Obama will be the sixth president to speak at Notre Dame, and he follows Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in speaking at the university in the first year of their presidencies. He will be addressing a Catholic constituency he covets in a state that, until he won in November, had not gone Democratic since 1964.

He comes to the lush campus to address an array of themes at a moment when abortion foes are confronting a changed landscape, their federal influence shrinking because of Obama's triumph and the election of strong Democratic majorities in Congress.

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