Barack Obama was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony of the University of Notre Dame, where he touched on the contentious issue of abortion.
Notre Dame, apart from being known for its football team, is one of the nation’s premier Catholic universities. It was thus very controversial for Obama, a strong advocate of abortion rights, to be invited. The Catholic Church strongly opposes abortion. Some students had attended their commencement but stated their stand by wearing anti-abortion symbols on their mortar boards.
Photo: New York Times
In typical Obama style, he attempted to engage his critics and search for middle ground on this hot button issue, which is a minefield for any politician in the US.
He did not attempt to rationalise his pro-choice views, but appealed to participants on both sides of the debate to try to find common ground on the issue in order to work towards achieving their goals. Here is what he said:
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. 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.
Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.
The full speech can be found here.
I have previously stated my opposition to abortion. I believe that life begins at conception and an abortion at any stage, whether at 4 weeks, 24 weeks or 40 weeks is taking an innocent life.
However I support elements of Obama’s approach to the issue, which is to work on reducing the number of abortions, rather than start by banning it outright. Too often, when presented with policy conundrums, we laymen end up arguing for all or nothing, losing sight of the objectives in the process.
What is the pro-life objective on abortion? To reduce the number of abortions to zero.
And the pro-choice objective? To ensure that women who desire to have an abortion can have one safely.
But if the pro-lifers are singularly focused on overturning Roe v. Wade, they would be investing a lot of energy and time into something which, at the end of the day, may not reduce the number of abortions by much. I am persuaded that more abortions can be avoided by helping the mothers to cope than by outlawing it.
In the same vein, I think healthcare providers whose consciences oppose abortion should not be made to participate in the procedure, even if it is part of their job. I’m not sure if these kind of exceptions are permitted in Singapore hospitals.
In the Singapore context, the PAP has already made that decision for us back in the 1960s. There is little hope of rolling back the clock. But what we can do is to pressure the government and hospitals to invest in more education, counselling and social assistance for expectant mothers so that our staggering abortion rate can be reduced.
More should be done. 12,000 innocent deaths a year are way too many. There’s no time to waste by getting caught up with fruitless debates over legislation.