Obama Confronts Abortion Debate At Notre Dame

After months of controversy, President Obama took the commencement stage Sunday at the University of Notre Dame. NPR's Scott Horsley is in South Bend, Ind., and he talks to Rebecca Roberts about how the president took on the issue that caused the controversy — abortion — and about the hecklers who tried to interrupt the speech.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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, at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.

ROBERTS: President Barack Obama tackling the abortion controversy head-on today. He delivered a high-profile commencement address at the University of Notre Dame despite a handful of hecklers, and the president urged those with even the most extreme differences to find common ground.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: 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 for women. Those are things we can do.

ROBERTS: The president's appearance at Notre Dame because a lightning rod for anti-abortion forces. They said it was wrong for a Catholic University to honor a president who supports abortion rights. Police in South Bend say at least three dozen protesters were arrested on trespassing charges. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley was with the president at Notre Dame. Scott, what was the mood like inside the hall?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Rebecca, the president got a huge ovation when he entered the Joyce Center and another when he received his honorary degree. A majority of the students here were very excited to have Barack Obama come to their campus, and some of the graduates had glued Obama campaign symbols to their mortarboards.

The reaction, however, was not universally approving. There were a few people who sat out the standing ovations, and there were, as you say, a handful of anti-abortion hecklers.

President OBAMA: I also want to congratulate the class of 2009 for all your accomplishments…

Unidentified Man #1: (Shouting) Abortion is murder.

President OBAMA: …and since this is Notre Dame…

(Soundbite of booing)

President OBAMA: I mean…

HORSLEY: But those hecklers were quickly shouted down. Now, while the crowd inside the basketball arena was supportive, there were protests outside. This controversy had spread well beyond the Notre Dame community itself.

ROBERTS: Well, from what we just heard of the speech, he certainly didn't duck the controversy.

HORSLEY: No, he didn't. And he took - went right to it. Not only the divisive issue of abortion, but also the proper role of a Catholic university. And he invoked Notre Dame's president emeritus, Ted Hesburgh, who said that this school should be both a lighthouse and a crossroads, that is holding true to Catholic teaching, but not isolating itself from those with different creeds or cultures or ideas.

ROBERTS: Well, despite that message, there were dozens of bishops who objected to Notre Dame inviting him. Hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition, and this comes at the same time as a new Gallup poll showing a pretty big shift on abortion rights. More Americans now consider themselves pro-life than pro-choice. How did all of that go into shaping the president's message?

HORSLEY: Well, as he said during the speech, people not only have strongly held and divisive views on abortion, but often, individuals themselves have nuanced positions and maybe are conflicted themselves about the appropriate place of abortion, and that's why he stressed not reducing one another to caricatures, but really listening to each other, trying to find areas where there is room for cooperation, for example, in reducing unwanted pregnancies. And he really extended that message not only to abortion, but to all sorts of issues.

He said whether it's stem cell research or fighting AIDS or even national security, he said look for ways where people of goodwill may disagree, but can find room to work together in a cooperative fashion.

ROBERTS: NPR's Scott Horsley covering the president's commencement speech today at Notre Dame. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rebecca.

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