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President Obama tackled the issue of abortion yesterday, urging people on all sides of the debate to seek common ground. The president's message was the more noteworthy for where he said it: the University of Notre Dame. The Roman Catholic university has been criticized by many of its own for inviting the president to deliver its commencement address since President Obama supports abortion rights, and that would be at odds with church doctrine. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama wasted no time in addressing the controversy that surrounded his visit. He told Notre Dame graduates even though supporters and opponents of abortion rights may have irreconcilable differences, the two camps should still treat one another respectfully, with what he called open hearts and open minds.

President BARACK OBAMA: Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casual, and there's both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Pres. OBAMA: Let's reduce unintended pregnancies.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama urged the same kind of cooperation on other divisive issues, saying the challenges now facing the planet are too big for one person, one nation or one faith to tackle individually.

Pres. OBAMA: We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity - diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family. And ...

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: The president got several standing ovations from the graduates and their families. Although his speech was interrupted several times by anti-abortion hecklers, they were quickly shouted down. Even those who disagreed with the president on abortion, like Michelle Coble, were generally respectful. Coble, who's an architecture student, wore a model of the Supreme Court on her mortarboard with a sign saying: Fight for Unborn Human Rights.

Ms. MICHELLE COBLE (Graduate, Notre Dame University): I was surprised he talked about it as much at length. I mean, most people thought he would just ignore this because you probably can't really expect to change, like, the Catholic belief on this.

HORSLEY: Coble said she thought Mr. Obama found a good middle ground in his speech. A few rows away, graduate Katie Michel was even more enthusiastic. Michel, who is not Catholic, wore a sticker that read: Pro-Obama, Pro-Choice.

Ms. KATIE MICHEL (Graduate, Notre Dame University): I really liked that he addressed the big, white elephant in the room and said - head on and said, we're going to talk about this, and it's important. And it is something that has been important to our class - so might as well talk about it, I guess.

HORSLEY: Protests against Mr. Obama's visit spilled outside the university as anti-abortion activists tried to draw attention to their cause. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the school's main gate, and a few dozen people were arrested for trespassing on campus. Notre Dame President John Jenkins said while much of the focus was on the risk the university took in inviting Mr. Obama, few paid attention to the risk he took by accepting.

Mr. JOHN JENKINS (President, Notre Dame University): Others might have avoided this venue. But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama spoke approvingly of Notre Dame's emeritus president Ted Hesburgh, who argued the university should be both a lighthouse and a crossroads, standing up for its Catholic principles but not shunning those with differing views. The president recalled the key role Hesburgh played on an Eisenhower-era Civil Rights Commission that included members who were black and white, Republican and Democrat, and Northern and Southern.

Pres. OBAMA: And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake, and they fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama urged graduates to remember that when they face their own daunting challenges. In the end, he said, we are all fishermen.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Notre Dame.

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