Obama’s Notre Dame Commencement: Common Ground on Abortion—Or Appeasement of Foes?

Considering the interest in Obama’s remarks at Notre Dame, one might be tempted to believe that the president has found a solution to the bitter controversy over abortion.

But in fact his address was not about abortion, it was about dealing with conflict in a democracy—and it avoided the central question in the conflict over abortion: how do those with diametrically opposed views live peacefully together when one wants to vanquish the other? It’s not a new question, but President Obama is seeking a new direction, which may be troubling.

The president asked:

As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?

And he gave this answer:

…open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do [because] that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

My experience of 13 years in the pro-choice movement is that “common ground” has become another term for compromise on reproductive choice. In other words, achieving common ground will be accomplished by diminishing the ability of women to make decisions about abortion, whatever the personal cost. That’s unacceptable.

It’s unacceptable for even one woman to suffer in order for opponents of abortion to be appeased.

In our democracy, we believe in standing up for the rights of the disenfranchised, the vulnerable, those without power; we don’t compromise them away. We should not sacrifice women’s lives in the service of calming controversy and tempering anger over an issue that has become political.

When I, a pro-choice Christian pastor, counsel a woman about abortion, I try to help her search for the decision that is right for her and, if she wishes, others in her life. Her decision is private and individual, a matter of conscience, personal circumstances that she knows best, and medical facts that only she and her doctor know. The last thing on my mind is “common ground.”

The president rightly wants us to lower the decibel level of the debate over abortion, to stop using loaded terms such as “right-wing extremist,” and to treat each other with fairness and civility. But he also acknowledged that, “at some level” there were “irreconcilable differences” over abortion between the “two camps.” Now, if you accept that women are full persons in the eyes of God and the law and if you understand justice to include equality, then you cannot stop working for women’s control over childbearing.

“Irreconcilable differences” over abortion are just that. And the question now, as the Obama administration attempts to work out policies to reduce unintended pregnancy, is how to reach a respectful agreement that honors these differences, not how to back down gracefully.

President Obama’s call for reducing abortion by reducing unintended pregnancies and making adoption more available ignores the complex emotional and psychological reality of sexual relations and personal decisions. Finding common ground about abortion is not the same as finding common ground about global warming or economic stimulus. Abortion is about an individual woman’s life—her decision, her destiny—and there can be no compromise when it comes to her conscience.

The president went to Notre Dame to promote understanding and cooperation and he openly addressed the issue of abortion while anti-abortion demonstrators protested outside. He spoke to the United States and to the world about finding a way “to live together as one human family.” That’s admirable, but he should also have recognized the individual woman who stands alone, needing to make a decision of conscience. For her, there is no question of easing tensions between opposing camps. There is only her decision; and that is what we must honor in any attempt to find common ground on abortion.