Obama, Abortion, and the Fighting Irish

Human Rights

I hadn't heard until this morning that President Obama, after accepting Notre Dame's invitation to deliver a commencement address, had no intention of talking at any length about abortion rights. But in light of the criticism from some conservative corners, the NYT noted that he "decided to devote most of his address to bridging the chasm over abortion and other moral issues."

It was clearly the right call. Indeed, the Washington Post added, "Obama appeared energized by the controversy over his appearance, and he addressed the debate over abortion with relish."

E. J. Dionne's take was spot-on:

Facing down protesters who didn't want him at Notre Dame, President Obama fought back not with harsh words but with the most devastating weapons in his political arsenal: a call for "open hearts," "open minds," "fair-minded words" and a search for "common ground."

There were many messages sent from South Bend. Obama's opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He doesn't. They would reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refused to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to certainty. He opted for humility.

He did all this without skirting the abortion question and without flinching from the "controversy surrounding my visit here." ... By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama's opponents on the Catholic right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost.

In some ways, the half-hour address was a great example of Obama doing precisely what he enjoys doing -- engaging those who disagree with him, extending respect to his rivals, emphasizing the value of dialog, searching for areas of agreement, and all the while, taking the high ground.

Note how he addressed the abortion issue, without backing down from his own long-held position. Obama emphasized, for example, how fair-minded people can work to reduce unwanted pregnancies, which would necessarily lower the number of abortions, and do more to "provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term."

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