Obama on Abortion at Notre Dame

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May 18, 2009 by D Stack

I was rather impressed by President Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame. He went into quite a hornet’s nest due to his pro-choice stance. Conservative commentators have been whipping up a frenzy of the president being guilty of mass infanticide.  Yet when he appeared President Obama addressed the issue head-on while maintaining a respectful tone. That’s no easy feat. While I was at the dentist this morning the office had “The View” on tv. And the hosts were engaged in a fairly heated debate about abortion.

The White House blog has an entry for this speech. It is worth reading in its entirety. Below are some points I found particularly interesting.

A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election.  He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.”  The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, 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.  He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”  Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him.  And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website.  And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.  Because when we do that — 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.

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.”

So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies.  (Applause.)  Let’s make adoption more available.  (Applause.)  Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term.  (Applause.)  Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.”  Those are things we can do.  (Applause.)

There’s two things I especially like about this speech. The first is that it acknowledges the need for civility. Even in life and death issues. Indeed, I think it is needed especially in life and death issues. The protesters made the assumption that nothing he said is worth listening. But without any listening, how can we accomplish anything. I’ve said in previous posts my sympathies are prolife, but I do not believe banning abortion is the way to go. Yet that is such a difficult position to articulate. But if you were to overturn Roe v. Wade tomorrow, it probably wouldn’t stop one abortion. Then you’d need to ban it in all 50 states.

And that brings me to his second point. And that is to recognize that abortion should never be a casual decision. A few years ago there was this push for women to wear t-shirts proclaiming “I had an abortion”. I think that is the wrong way to go. I understand the prochoice position but I have problems when it turns into trivializing abortion. I don’t think it should be something as routine as getting a wart removed. And working to defeat the root causes of abortion will help reduce the numbers of abortions. Many of these policies would be more liberal in political bent, but if you won’t have a dialogue with those you disagree with you’ll never reach this point. The two sides have fundamental disagreements that can’t fully be bridged, as Obama himself indicated in his address. But if we just shout at each other we’ll accomplish nothing.

One article I’d suggest reading, and one I’ll probably return to in the future, is Guttmacher’s article from Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health: Why U.S. Women Have Abortions. It goes beyond the typical finger-pointing and instead analyzes, qualitatively and quantitatively, the reasons women in the U.S. choose to have abortions. Many of the women give the reason of money – feeling they will be unable to provide for a child – or an additional child. And many of these women are below the poverty line and already receiving government assistance. Yet the same political  party which is against abortion is also against providing government assistance. And while adoption is indeed an option, would proponents of this also accept a tax increase for greater government assistance to pay for medical expenses and lost wages? This is not a rhetorical question. It is an opportunity to put one’s money where one’s mouth is. And I’d be the first to applaud a Republican who takes that stance – it would show a seriousness at resolving this issue.

“I have three kids already, and the guy that I was living with, he was, you know, doing good as far as helping me, but he just went to jail.…I am alone with three kids, and they are all I have. It’s hard.…I am barely making it, you know, because it is…harder to get things,…you can’t get food, you
know, you cannot get food stamps….I only get 50 [dollars] in food stamps [a month].…It is just too hard.”

—22-year-old, below the poverty line


  1. “In Praise of Fair-Minded Words at Notre Dame”. White House Briefing Room: The Blog. May 18, 2009.  <http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/In-Praise-of-Fair-Minded-Words-at-Notre-Dame/>.  Retrieved May 18, 2009.
  2. Lawrence B. Finer,  Lori F. Frohwirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, Susheela Singh, and Ann M. Moore. “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives”. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Volume 7, Number 3, September 2005. <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/psrh/full/3711005.pdf>.  Retrieved May 18, 2009.

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