Confronting the nation’s deep schism over abortion, President Obama on Sunday called for greater understanding on all sides and “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words” on the issue as he spoke to graduates at one of America’s premier Catholic universities.
Obama emphasized the importance of common ground as opponents of abortion rights protested his appearance and the honorary degree he received from the University of Notre Dame.
“I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away,” he said. “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.”
Speaking before about 12,000 people inside the university’s basketball arena, Obama borrowed a page from former President Clinton, who supported abortion rights but spoke often of the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies and encourage adoptions -- language that both sides can generally agree with.
Displaying his well-established rhetorical ability and history of reaching out to people of faith -- techniques that have helped him confront more contentious situations, such as when a controversial former pastor threatened his candidacy in 2008 -- Obama called for each side to stop dehumanizing the other.
Since his March acceptance of the university’s invitation, a national furor has brewed over whether such a prominent supporter of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research should be honored by the school. His speech, however, won strong reviews both inside and outside the arena.
“President Obama did exactly what he needed to do,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “He challenged the students to take on the problems of the day; he spoke beyond them to the wider audience of Catholic citizens and presented a demeanor that contrasted with those who tried to paint him as a demonic, anti-life fanatic.”
Michael McNaught, assistant director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for Religion and Spirituality in Los Angeles, said: “As a practicing Catholic, I found his speech inspiring and hopeful. . . . I suspect that one of his motivations is to kind of hit this issue head-on. He’s not hiding from the controversy.”
As a candidate and president, Obama has promoted policies popular with abortion rights supporters, while also suggesting that he wants to rise above the rhetoric that often surrounds the issue.
Since taking office, he has tried to send assuring signals to both sides, directing his aides to meet with abortion foes while also taking steps to ease restrictions on embryonic stem cell research and reversing a Bush administration ban on funding international groups that perform or advocate abortions.
In seeking to ease tensions on abortion, Obama is trying to neutralize a key issue used by Republicans to galvanize conservative voters -- particularly in GOP-leaning places such as Indiana, a state that he won in last year’s election.
But there is also a more immediate political benefit for Obama and his Democratic allies in finding ways to tamp down the emotions on abortion: softening a rallying point for conservative groups that want to influence the replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter.
The White House also has sought to quell any controversy over morality matters as it seeks to keep Obama’s new presidency from being diverted from the pressing problems he faces over the economy and military conflicts overseas.
The president’s speech was interrupted briefly three times by shouts from protesters inside the Joyce Center, as hundreds of others protested on campus and outside the school’s gates.
“Abortion is murder,” one man yelled. “Stop killing our children,” another said. The protesters were booed and escorted from the arena.
Outside, small groups of protesters gathered at intersections near the school, as cargo trucks with pictures of bloodied fetuses circled campus. About two dozen seniors boycotted their commencement as a show of protest.
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said 38 people were arrested on campus, mostly for trespassing. South Bend police said they made no arrests off campus.
Wearing the blue gown of the university, Obama said the Notre Dame controversy reminded him of a letter he received from a doctor who voted for him in the 2004 U.S. Senate primary in Illinois. He said the man complained about language on his campaign website that suggested “right-wing ideologues” wanted to take away a woman’s right to choose.
“The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person,” he said. “But that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable.”
Obama said he did not change his position on the issue but did instruct his staff to change the language on his website. He also said a prayer that night to ask that he might extend the same presumption of good faith to others.
“When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe, that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground,” he said.
Obama also pointed to his days as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the deceased longtime archbishop of Chicago.
“He was a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man,” he said. “He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads -- unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty, AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground.”
By speaking at the university, Reese said, Obama was acknowledging that Catholics form “an essential part of this country -- and voters.”
“He has to reach out to them in a convincing way that shows he’s sensitive to the same issues they’re concerned about,” he said.
A few graduates wore mortarboards decorated with yellow crosses and tiny footprints to show their opposition to abortion, while others wore caps displaying Obama’s campaign logo.
Most of Obama’s address focused on the roughly 2,900 graduates, rather than the controversy swirling outside.
“Now, you, class of 2009, are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty,” he said. “You’ll be called to help restore a free market that’s also fair to all who are willing to work. You’ll be called to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet.”
Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, praised Obama for accepting the school’s invitation, despite knowledge that his views differed from many of those taught by the Roman Catholic Church.
“Others might have avoided this venue for that reason,” Jenkins said. “But President Obama is not someone who stops talking with those who differ with him.”
Peter Wallsten in the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Kimi Yoshino in Los Angeles contributed to this report.