Unpacking Obama's Notre Dame/Abortion Answer Last Night

The president reaffirms his support for abortion rights but recommits to reducing abortion.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

There was one big "faith and values" moment during last night's presidential press conference, provoked by Ed Henry's question on Obama's forthcoming Notre Dame appearance and the president's support for the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate most state-level abortion restrictions.

As I see it, the president sent six important messages in his response:

1. He avoided any mention of Notre Dame, trying to stay above the fray. Most Americans probably haven't heard about the controversy, so why boost the story's visibility by commenting on it?

2. He unequivocally acknowledged a moral/ethical dimension to the abortion issue: "I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue."

Most Americans are somewhat ambivalent about abortion rights, opposing both a strict abortion ban and legalized abortion without restrictions, suggesting they see it as a morally tricky issue. But some high-profile Democrats have declined to recognize that moral dimension.

For instance, John Kerry's answer to an abortion question in the third presidential debate of the '04 race suggested that he personally opposed abortion as an article of faith and yet—remarkably, given that admission—avoided treating the issue as a moral one:

Question: Some Catholic archbishops said that it would be a sin to vote for a candidate like you because you support a woman's right to choose an abortion and unlimited stem-cell research. What is your reaction to that?

Kerry: I completely respect their views. I am a Catholic. And I grew up learning how to respect those views. But I disagree with them, as do many. I can't legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn't share that article of faith. I believe that choice is a woman's choice. It's between a woman, God and her doctor. That's why I support that. I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade.

3. Obama chided antiabortion activists who decline to acknowledge the moral dimension of the abortion issue, earning him points with all those Americans who see that dimension, regardless of where they stand on abortion rights:

I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they—if they suggest—and I don't want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations.

4. He reaffirmed and explained his pro-abortion-rights position, reassuring his party's base amid all the Democratic talk about "abortion reduction" and after having just lectured abortion-rights advocates:

The reason I'm pro-choice is because I don't think women take that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day, and I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a President of the United States—in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy. So that's been my consistent position.

5. He reiterated his support for reducing demand for abortion by reducing unwanted pregnancies and revealed that a White House task force was working with groups on both sides of the issue to codify that goal into policy:

The other thing that I said consistently during the campaign is I would like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion or at least considering getting an abortion, particularly if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies, which has started to spike up again. And so I've got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that.

6. He dialed back his enthusiasm for the Freedom of Choice Act after saying on the campaign trail last year that signing it was the "first thing I'd do as president." Another appealing message to cultural conservatives and another slight to abortion-rights supporters:

Now, the freedom of choice act is not my highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose, but I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that's where I'm going to focus.