Obama Addresses Abortion Protests in Commencement Speech at Notre Dame

President Barack Obama strode head-on Sunday into the stormy abortion debate and told graduates at America's leading Roman Catholic university that both sides must stop demonizing one another. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

SOUTH BEND, Ind., May 17 -- Amid a scattering of angry protests over his support for abortion rights, President Obama addressed the issue head-on Sunday at the University of Notre Dame, calling for "open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words" in the pursuit of "common ground."

Since becoming president, and before that for nearly two years on the campaign trail, Obama has sought to skirt the emotional anger that surrounds the debate over abortion. But his decision to speak to graduating Notre Dame students made that approach impossible Sunday.

The invitation from one of America's best-known Catholic universities ignited a firestorm of discussion over whether an institution that adheres to the Roman Catholic Church's condemnation of abortion should confer an honorary law degree on a president who is committed to safeguarding abortion rights.

Obama appeared energized by the controversy over his appearance, and he addressed the debate over abortion with relish. He pleaded for courtesy in the dialogue even as he acknowledged that "at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable."

"Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort?" he said. "As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"

He added: "Let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. . . . Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause."

The vast majority of the 12,000 in attendance at the Joyce Center basketball arena gave the president several loud, sustained ovations, and the crowd rallied to his defense when people attempted to interrupt him at the start. One protester yelled "Abortion is murder!" "Baby killer!" and "You have blood on your hands." Another shouted, "Stop killing our children." The crowd responded with boos and then chants of "Yes, we can" and "We are N.D."

A handful of graduates engaged in a silent protest, having taped a yellow cross and yellow images of baby feet to the top of their mortarboards. Twenty-six of the 2,900 graduates elected to skip the ceremony to protest the school's decision to honor Obama, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Meanwhile, hundreds of antiabortion protesters gathered Sunday outside the front gate of the university, beyond the view of the presidential motorcade; police arrested more than three dozen for trespassing, including Norma McCorvey, the woman at the center of the landmark Supreme Court abortion case Roe v. Wade, who is now an antiabortion activist. Billboards on the nearby Indiana Toll Road read: "Notre Dame: Obama is pro abortion choice. How dare you honor him."

Obama did not engage in the debate over when life begins, nor did he attempt to justify his beliefs about abortion or embryonic stem cell research, positions that some said should have disqualified him from Notre Dame's honorary degree. Instead, the president took aim at the loud and angry rhetoric that he said too often dominates the discussion.

The failure of both sides to use "fair-minded words," he said, overly inflames an important debate. As an example, he described his own 2004 campaign Web site, which at one point referred to "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose."

It was not until a doctor e-mailed him about the phrase that Obama ordered it taken down, he said.

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