President Obama confronted the emotional issue of abortion Sunday during his speech at the University of Notre Dame. The Catholic school invited the president, who has steadfastly supported abortion rights, to speak at its commencement ceremony, setting up a conflict between secular policy and faith.
As is his emerging pattern on such matters, Mr. Obama used the controversy that built in advance of the speech to address the abortion question head-on. His assertion that there can be some common ground found on abortion has a ring of familiarity — the president, in other speeches, has said such common ground could be found on guns and other thorny issues.
The president could have dodged the issue for the moment. But he knows that when he nominates a Supreme Court justice in the coming months to replace retiring Justice David Souter, abortion again will be debated in the halls of Congress, through newspaper letters to the editor and in churches, coffee shops and around kitchen tables.
So what common ground can be found between those who believe abortion is on par with murder and those who, though they may never choose to end a pregnancy, would march to protect that choice?
Recent polling data shed some light. Gallup reported that 51 percent of Americans consider themselves pro-life rather than pro-choice, the first time in 15 years that a majority falls on this side of the question. A year ago, 44 percent claimed to be pro-life and 50 percent considered themselves pro-choice.
But the same poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances, and 22 percent said it should be legal under any circumstance. Together, that means 75 percent of Americans support legalized abortion, at least in some form.
The common ground, then, may lie where choice meets circumstance. Late-term abortions, so-called partial-birth abortions and abortions perceived to be an after-the-fact form of birth control are repugnant to most people. Even those who support access to abortion may agree that some abortion choices are morally wrong, even if legal. If laws respect those differences, a greater consensus can be achieved.
Charting a course for common ground, the president said: “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 in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.” His critics, though, note that Mr. Obama had earlier indicated his intent to reverse a conscience clause for physicians and other health care workers implemented by President George W. Bush.
President Clinton’s pledge to make abortions “safe, legal and rare” is also instructive. So is the approach President Carter used. Mr. Carter, a fundamentalist Christian elected just three years after Roe v. Wade, has said he accepted the ruling as law and instead studied the reasons women had abortions. Often, he found, they worried about being unable to feed their children, and so he established the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
The issue will not be resolved, so the president is right to focus on at least seeking, if not finding, common ground.