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.
Although conservatives in a number of states are trying to restrict abortions, voters in South Dakota and Colorado rejected November ballot initiatives to outlaw virtually all abortions. On a larger scale, a majority of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.
As a result, a growing number of antiabortion clergy, academics and grass-roots activists have been pushing other approaches designed to make abortion more rare. Obama's domestic policy staff is discussing ways to reduce unintended pregnancies and strengthen adoption, part of a search for what he calls common ground.
To some abortion foes, including prominent Catholics and evangelical Christians, Obama's support for abortion rights remains a nonnegotiable negative. Notre Dame's decision to invite him and award him an honorary doctor of laws degree presented a chance to argue their case on a public stage.
"We really see this event as an opportunity," said Eric Scheidler, spokesman for the Pro Life Action League, which is planning graduation-day protests. The group hopes to reach Catholics who support Obama's views on social justice without "thinking so much about his extreme views on abortion."
Anthony J. Lauinger, a National Right to Life executive, who sent all eight of his children to Notre Dame, accused Obama of using the graduation speech "to co-opt the Catholic vote." He said the president is "trying to inoculate himself against the fact that he is a radical pro-abortion extremist."
In South Bend, former Operation Rescue leader Terry has set up shop, scheduling rounds of protests. Followers stand at the university gates, holding up signs with photos of aborted fetuses. Last week, Republican gadfly Keyes was among 22 protesters arrested on trespassing charges.
"We want this to be a political mud pit for Obama," Terry said. "Our mission is to tar him with the blood of the babies so he can never shake it between now and 2012."
On campus, Disipio said the topic of Obama's visit has come up in "dining halls, residence halls, every class I've been in."
Carolyn Rumer, 20, said a clear majority of students favor the visit, "but the people who are against it are really against it."
"I think it's good that he's coming and increasing dialogue, because that's what a university is all about," said Rumer, a junior. Many seniors, she added, "don't want their graduation to be ruined."
A small number of graduating seniors intend to boycott the ceremony, said Mary Daly, former president of the school's Right to Life group. Others will attend "to be respectful to the office of the presidency and pro-life witnesses."
Asked about seniors who may boycott their commencement because of Obama's appearance, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday at his daily briefing that "it's important to understand it appears as if the vast majority of students and the majority of Catholics are supportive of the invitation the president accepted, and I know he's greatly looking forward to it."
Daly, who will attend a protest rally on campus and a prayer vigil at the university's grotto, said Obama has failed in his first 15 weeks to protect and defend the dignity of human life. She is disappointed: "As a Catholic university, Notre Dame should adhere to the fundamental moral principles of the Catholic Church."
The storm enveloping Notre Dame was not matched when the university awarded honorary degrees to Carter and to former president Gerald R. Ford, who both supported abortion rights. Nor was it foretold in election results, when Obama won a majority of Catholics.
These days, however, a billboard greets drivers traveling to South Bend from Chicago. Trucks continually circle the campus bearing signs that say "Shame on Notre Dame" and "Judas and Jenkins Betrayed Jesus." Then there is the airplane, plying the skies several times a day for weeks.
"People are weary of it," history professor R. Scott Appleby said. "I certainly feel this is not the best way to respect life. It makes the cause a circus."
Salmon reported from Washington. Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.