Obama at Notre Dame and the abortion debate

Posted on May 18, 2009



On Sunday, President Barack Obama gave a much-anticipated commencement speech at Notre Dame. The appearance was controversial owing to Notre Dame, a Catholic university, taking the occasion to bestow an honorary degree upon the strongly pro-choice politician. Leaving aside the Notre Dame President calling peaceful protesters “religious vigilantes”, the event was somewhat anti-climactic, with Obama urging understanding and open-mindedness in a somewhat trite address that wasn’t as inflammatory as some feared it might be, but not as transcendent as others might have spun.

One thing the President said struck me – I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of both sides of the abortion debate should want the number of women seeking abortions to decrease. It’s a terrific concept, and one that I believe myself – that no matter your view, we ought to agree that abortion should be the method of last resort because it represents at some point a failure of decision-making that should be curtailed as much as possible.

The only problem is that we never hear this argument at all. Any attempt to promote adoption or abstinence is laughed off as unrealistic, and it seems like there’s a belief among some that flooding the streets with condoms and nonstop sex education will solve the problem of unwanted pregnancy. At the same time, an argument against abortion at any stage is immediately attacked as anti-woman, as if a moral opposition to the practice somehow means you secretly pine for women to bleed to death in back alleys. It’s a cartoonish view of the opposing side that doesn’t seem very open-minded, and is just as ridiculous as caricatures of pro-choice folks as bloodthirsty murderers itching for the next opportunity to kill.

It’s why the President’s call for seeking “common ground” seems a bit hollow, particularly for a man who fretted over the Illinois version of the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, worrying that doctors might have their orders superseded if an infant survives an abortion procedure. Doctor Zero at Hot Air has an excellent analysis of the larger truth surrounding Obama’s speech – that the call for “dialogue” rings empty when one side really doesn’t want the debate, when both sides demonize another, and as the President stated, on a very basic level are fundamentally irreconcilable.

Dialogue and an open mind are great things to say (and things which I welcome), but saying things is easy. On a more tangible level, I’m a little disappointed for the Notre Dame students. They deserved a graduation that celebrated their own accomplishments, but instead they got a commencement that was more about President Obama and his beliefs. Notre Dame’s decision to bestow an honorary degree makes little sense to me from a variety of standpoints, but it’s done and the brouhaha is over, for now anyway.

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