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Talking About Talking About Abortion

President Barack Obama delivered his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday, and he appeared to dive right into the very issue that made his visit to the Catholic university so controversial — abortion.

The President’s appearance at Notre Dame came even as seventy Catholic bishops denounced the university’s invitation.  Protests and debates roiled the world of American Catholicism and a major media event was assured.

The President began his address with a call for common ground, noting that the generation represented by the young Notre Dame graduates would face daunting challenges.  “Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone,” said Mr. Obama.  “Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.”

Yet, even as he called for common ground, he also warned:  “We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.”   Everyone knew that the President was referring to abortion.  Once again, he called for common ground.  “That’s when we begin to say, ‘Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.’”

In virtually every way imaginable, the Notre Dame speech represents the quintessential Obama.  By now, Americans should understand that this President is going to take positions and shape policies that are at odds with the sanctity of human life.  He has already done this with respect to federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research and, as a candidate he pledged to do far more — even to sign the Freedom of Choice Act if passed by Congress.

At the same time, the President wants to claim common ground and respect for those who differ with him on these issues.  He calls for others to do the same:

I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away.  Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.  Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction.  But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Mr. Obama went on to call for “Open hearts.  Open minds. Fair-minded words.”  In the end, the President’s comments were entirely about how Americans should discuss or debate abortion.  There was no serious consideration of abortion itself.  President Obama merely talked about talking about abortion.

This was a moral evasion and an insult to the importance of the issue.  If the President had actually addressed the issue of abortion — if he had actually even offered a defense or rationale for his own position — he would have dignified the issue.  Instead, Mr. Obama issued what amounted to a call for civility.

When the President called for Americans to agree that, while differing on abortion, “we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually,” he failed to make clear why this is so.  If the unborn baby is not a person who possesses an intrinsic right to life, why is the decision to abort so “heart-wrenching?”  If the fetus is just a collection of cells, why the angst?  Furthermore, does the fact that a decision is “heart-wrenching” make it right or rational?

When the President acknowledged that, in the end, the two positions on abortion are irreconcilable, he was on more solid ground.  Both sides frame the issue as a question of rights — specifically a woman’s “right” to control her reproductive destiny by any means, including abortion vs. the unborn child’s right to live.  The weakness of the pro-abortion (or “pro-choice”) position becomes evident at this point.  The claimed right of control over reproduction is not commensurate with another person’s right to live, and not to be killed in the womb.

If President Obama had actually spoken of abortion itself, rather than addressing abortion only as an issue of controversy, he would have found himself defending the indefensible, which explains why he avoids this discussion at all costs.  Yet, now that he is President, he cannot get by with claiming that this question is “above my pay grade.”

The President also called for a certain humility on contested issues.  “And this doubt should not push us away our faith,” argued the President.  “But it should humble us.  It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness.”  In itself, this is a good and responsible warning.  But, as President Abraham Lincoln made clear in his second inaugural address, avoiding arrogance and self-righteousness does not mean failing to take a clear and costly stand.

This President is entirely predictable on the issue of abortion and related issues of human life, such as embryonic stem cell research.  He is framing policies that are completely consistent with what he said and promised during his campaign.  It is embarrassing to see some evangelicals who claim to be pro-life running public relations for the Obama Administration’s policies and positions.  It is not uncivil to protest the President’s positions as subversive of human dignity and the sanctity of human life.

At the University of Notre Dame President Barack Obama talked about talking about abortion.  One day, he will have to talk about abortion itself.  He will put that day off as long as possible.