9 Key Developments in Obama's Notre Dame Speech

The president embraced the controversy over his appearance head-on, making policy news in the process.

By + More

By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Yesterday's Notre Dame speech was a huge moment for President Obama not only because of the months of controversy leading up to it but because, when he finally made it to the podium, he devoted a good-sized chunk of the address to confronting the basis for the controversy—his abortion stance—head-on.

I see nine key developments in the speech:

1. Obama acknowledged the controversy surrounding his appearance at Notre Dame in a big way, devoting roughly a fifth of his half-hour-long speech to the issue. White House aides had said last week that the president wouldn't dwell on abortion in his address, but he wound up doing just that, beginning with the phrase "As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here . . . ."

Obama clearly believes he has more to gain by confronting the thorny abortion debate directly than by ducking or downplaying it. "We're not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes," he said, straying from his prepared remarks when an antiabortion heckler interrupted his speech early on.

For the president, that means acknowledging just how divisive the issue is. "Nowhere do these questions," Obama said yesterday, referring to the dilemma of how to adhere to principles while working to find common ground with opponents, "come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion."

2. Though the Obama White House has been publicly quiet in recent months about its previously stated commitment to reducing demand for abortion—some aides have encouraged the news media to describe the administration's plan for "pregnancy prevention" rather than "abortion reduction"—Obama yesterday gave a full-throated reaffirmation of his intentions to that end.

Importantly, Obama mentioned two policy proposals around abortion—increasing availability of adoption and increasing assistance to pregnant women who carry their babies to term—that go way beyond pregnancy prevention. Though the White House has carefully avoided embracing any of the Democratic legislative vehicles for reducing demand for abortion, these two proposals are enshrined in the Pregnant Women Support Act, which was recently reintroduced by Democratic lawmakers in Congress and which has won robust support from the Roman Catholic Church.

If the White House gets behind that bill, it's a major victory for antiabortion Democrats.

Here's what Obama said yesterday:

So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term.

3. After moving in February to rescind new federal "conscience" protections for healthcare workers, Obama yesterday voiced support for the first time for "drafting a sensible conscience clause." I'm surprised this hasn't gotten a lot more attention because it's a potentially major policy shift.

Obama's remarks represent a step away from wholly rescinding regulations, adopted by George W. Bush at the 11th hour of his administration, that provide increased protection for healthcare workers who refuse to perform abortions because of religious or moral objections. Critics say the rules also shield workers from having to provide much less controversial services, like administering emergency contraception.

Here's what Obama said yesterday:

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.

4. Obama argued that, despite his hopes of achieving common ground around the hottest-button issue, the two sides in the abortion debate really are at loggerheads. This passage surprised me. It was incongruous with a speech that argued common ground is always possible between ideological combatants.

And it comes on the heels of a new Gallup Poll showing that most Americans reside in neither of the two extreme camps in the abortion debate. Most reject an all-out abortion ban and an unfettered right to abortion. A majority support legalized abortion in certain circumstances.

Here's Obama:

No matter how much we may want to fudge it—indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory—the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.

Obama's "no matter how much we may want to fudge it" line will be a magnet for his antiabortion critics, who say his rhetoric on abortion reduction is nothing more than a PR move aimed at wooing cultural conservatives into the Democratic Party.

5. TV coverage of yesterday's event showed that, for the months of controversy surrounding Obama's appearance at the nation's premier Catholic college, most of the student body supported his being there. The president's appearance was met with sustained applause, he garnered more throughout the speech, and when antiabortion hecklers occasionally interrupted him, students drowned them out with shouts of "We are ND" and "Yes, we can." On TV, the event seemed at times like an Obama rally.

After months of media coverage showcasing the critics of Obama's Notre Dame appearance, TV footage of the president's enthusiastic reception reinforces the fact that Catholics who opposed his appearance constituted a minority. Antiabortion protesters at Notre Dame got some media attention, but their relatively thin ranks were another reality check on the news media's obsessive coverage of the anti-Obama-at-Notre Dame forces.

6. Obama never stated his pro-abortion-rights position. Combined with his support for helping pregnant women carry their babies to term and for a "sensible conscience clause," this will probably rile abortion-rights activists. In reaching out to abortion-rights foes, Obama provided little rhetorical reassurance to his pro-abortion-rights allies.

7. With antiabortion activists seeking to brand Obama as the "most pro-abortion president in American history," Obama peppered his speech with shows of respect for those on the other side of the issue. "Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction," Obama said. "But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

When an antiabortion heckler interrupted him, Obama acknowledged his protest. "We're fine, everybody," he said. "We're following Brennan's adage that we don't do things easily."

Even if Obama is not going to win over hard-core antiabortion-rights opponents, he did win over a fair number of cultural conservatives in red states like Indiana last year with a similar strategy: showing respect for their position, defusing culture war issues, and reaping their support on the basis of his economic positions.

8. Obama spoke to the moral dimension of a woman's decision to have an abortion, which he has done repeatedly in recent years. It represents a break with Democrats who, for a long time, declined to do so. "Maybe we won't agree on abortion," the president said at Notre Dame. "But we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually; it has both moral and spiritual dimensions."

9. Obama addressed moral and religious issues beyond abortion. This is important because most religious Americans don't see their faith mostly in terms of stopping abortion. Significantly, Obama spoke as a fellow believer:

Finding that common ground—recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a "single garment of destiny"—is not easy. And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man—our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin . . . . Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice.

  • Take our poll: Did Obama talk too much about abortion in his Notre Dame speech?
  • Follow Dan Gilgoff on Twitter.
  • Read more about Barack Obama.