After Notre Dame, will there be a common ground?

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

Will President Obama’s plea for “common ground” on abortion during his much-anticipated speech at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday (May 17) persuade ardent abortion opponents to work with the new president? At first glance, it doesn’t seem likely. “Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction,” he said to a mostly receptive audience at the nation’s flagship Catholic university. “But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”

But Obama’s entreaties for “open hearts” and “fair-minded words” may fall on deaf ears and minds already made up on the polarizing issue.

“No one in the pro-life movement believes his promises about abortion reduction,” said Deal Hudson, director of, a conservative Web site, and a former GOP adviser. “Every decision he’s made thus far would do nothing but increase the number of abortions.”

Hudson cited Obama’s decision to open federal funding to international groups that provide abortions, for example.

Other critics say Obama administration policies speak louder than his words.

Chuck Donovan, executive vice president of Family Research Council, criticized the administration’s funding of embryonic stem cell research and plans to reduce conscience protections for healthcare workers. An FRC representative met with the White House recently to plan ways to reduce abortions.

But, according to Donovan, “To be credible, that plan would have to begin with reversing every decision Obama has made on abortion to date.”

Obama’s pragmatic efforts are up against ideological stances that both sides acknowledge may be “irreconcilable.”

But the applause of Notre Dame students for Obama’s suggestions for abortion reduction repudiates the dozens of Catholic bishops who opposed his speech and receipt of an honorary degree, some Catholics say.

The Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at Notre Dame, said the protesters outside the speech and the bishops who criticized it from afar don’t see the nuance in the debate about abortion.

“The issue is not whether abortion is moral or not,” said McBrien. “The issue is whether it should be criminalized and, if so, under what circumstances? … All of us believe abortion is immoral. The question is, what is the best way to at least reduce the number of them?”

Other progressive Catholics also hope Obama’s words on seeking common ground will be heeded.

“His call for debating reasonably and for using `fair-minded words’ to acknowledge the good faith of those who disagree with us shows the right way forward through moral and political impasses: debate, not demonization,” said Terrence W. Tilley, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

But a new Gallup poll shows that 51 percent of Americans now consider themselves “pro-life” compared to 42 percent who say they are “pro-choice.” The change from recent years, when more people called themselves “pro-choice,” nevertheless shows a continuing polarization that may make common ground hard to find.

Randall Terry, a longtime abortion opponent, set up an office in South Bend, Ind., to protest the speech weeks before it occurred and provided tickets to three people who shouted such statements as “Stop killing children!” at the president before they were removed from the arena where he spoke.

“You can’t work with somebody on the issue of child killing who wants to kill children,” said Terry in an interview Monday. “Abortion is murder. How can you work with people who want to murder the ones you want to defend?”

(National Correspondent Daniel Burke contributed to this report.)

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