Can Obama ease the abortion debate?

As the president seeks common ground between pro-choice and pro-life camps, conservatives scurry farther to the right.

By Kate Harding

Published May 15, 2009 3:29PM (EDT)

As President Obama prepares to deliver the commencement address at Notre Dame this weekend, his views on abortion are the hot topic du jour. While the likes of Newt Gingrich and Sam Brownback are, hilariously, trying to characterize Obama's abortion policies as "radical" and "hard left," many supporters of reproductive freedom argue that the president hasn't gone far enough. (I'm awfully curious about where the New York Times got the idea that "Mr. Obama has delighted abortion rights advocates." I mean, other than from Sam Brownback.) It's almost as though Obama is a moderate who's more interested in achieving (the perception of) bipartisan consensus than in advancing the lefty agenda conservatives swear he has and progressives wish he had. You know, exactly like he claimed to be in every stump speech -- who could have seen that coming?

And yet, conservative Christians are noisily insisting that a moderate, more-or-less pro-choice president should not be receiving an honorary degree from -- or in some cases, even speaking at -- a Catholic university. 

Here is where I mention that I, your friendly neighborhood unhinged radical baby-killer, have a degree from one Catholic university and have attended two others. I never heard a word about my pro-choice views threatening my chance of graduation. That's because, bishops' statement notwithstanding, most Catholic universities are not meant to be straight-up Bible colleges. Notre Dame is not a Roman Catholic analogue to Liberty University. It is, like most Catholic universities in the U.S., an institution that serves an interfaith community and values open intellectual inquiry -- not to mention social justice, attention to the needs of the poor, and the basic dignity of human beings (psst, that includes women), all of which are values many pro-choice people share, regardless of their religious affiliations or unapologetic lack thereof. Granting degrees to people who are not practicing Catholics is not a scandal or a threat to the university's professed values; it's something the majority of Catholic institutions in the U.S. do every commencement season. They're not ordaining the president, for Pete's sake.

So why are we still talking about this? As Chris Korzen of Catholics United says over at RH Reality Check: 

"In reality, the Notre Dame 'scandal' is little more than manufactured controversy, a predictable product of the Republican coalition's current sorry state of affairs. Leaderless and defeated, the GOP is in a fight for its very soul, with radicals seeking to step up the culture war over issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and moderates blaming that same culture war for the party's woes. The radicals reckon that by creating a big enough stink to make something stick to the Teflon-coated Obama, they can prove they still deserve a seat at the table."

Given that Obama plans to go ahead with making the speech and accepting the honorary degree on Sunday, the stink doesn't seem to have stuck. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we're out of the woods. A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time, more Americans (51 percent) identify as "pro-life" than "pro-choice." (A year ago, the same poll found folks were 50 percent pro-choice and 44 percent pro-life.) Although "the dominant position on this question remains the middle option [i.e., abortion should be legal under some circumstances], as it has continuously since 1975," the number of people who believe it should be illegal in all circumstances is now roughly equal to the number who believe it should be legal in all. What's changed? "The percentage of Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) calling themselves 'pro-life' rose by 10 points over the past year, from 60 percent to 70 percent, while there has been essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners ... Similarly, by ideology, all of the increase in pro-life sentiment is seen among self-identified conservatives and moderates; the abortion views of political liberals have not changed."

While Obama talks about reaching out to abortion opponents and respecting everyone on both sides of the debate, Republicans and conservatives are retreating from the common ground he hopes to find. While he tries to please both sides, conservative politicians and talking heads are advancing the laughable notion that we elected -- in Gingrich's words -- "the most radical, pro-abortion of any American president." (Dude, I wish.) No matter how sincerely Obama wants to ease the tension between pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates, it's looking more and more like he doesn't have a prayer.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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