The voice of reason?
President Obama delivered his much-anticipated Notre Dame commencement address yesterday, an event that had occasioned much controversy in Roman Catholic circles because of the university's decision to honor the president with an honorary degree despite his pro-abortion views. Obama discussed abortion during the speech, and as one who is decidedly in the middle on this subject (see this 1999 article for a fuller exposition of our views), we were impressed as we listened.
Yet later, thinking about the substance of what he said, we began to wonder if we'd been had. Consider this anecdote
As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called "The Audacity of Hope." A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life--but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.
What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my Web site--an entry that said I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words." Fair-minded words.
After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn't change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site.
What does this amount to, really? After winning the Democratic primary, Obama toned down his campaign's truculent rhetoric. That is, his primary campaign appealed to hard-core ideologues, while his general-election campaign made a softer pitch, aimed at attracting moderate and nonideological voters. Obama's rhetorical skill is such that he makes this like an act of depth and thoughtfulness. In fact, it is the most pedestrian of campaign tactics.
The president continued:
And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that--when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe--that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.
That's when we begin to say, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions."
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. 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." Those are things we can do.
Now, understand--understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because 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. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
There is a tension between Obama's acknowledgment "that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory" and his statement that "the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." To be sure, he qualifies the latter with weasel words: "at some level." And it true but trivial that it makes no logical sense to assert (to take one formulation of the extreme views) that abortion is both tantamount to murder and of no more moral significance than excising a cyst.
But most people's moral intuitions lead them away from these extremes, and along the spectrum between them there are many ways of reconciling the competing moral claims of both sides. One may take the view that abortion is a gray area, neither murder nor mere "medical procedure." One may see it as a necessary evil, or as a morally ambiguous action that should be avoided, or legally restricted, in case the antiabortion side is right.
Political compromise is the way in which democratic governance produces policies to approximate such wide-ranging views. But the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions, has severely restricted the space available for political compromise. Obama's position--that Roe should remain the law of the land--is one of irreconciliation.
Many surveys suggest that a majority of Americans, while eschewing both extremes, favor greater restrictions on abortion than Roe now permits. Obama may "respect" those who hold such views, but he thinks that their views should continue to be excluded from the political process. His rhetoric of respect and reconciliation is welcome and reassuring. If only it were true.