As fascinating as the question is of whether Notre Dame was being true to its Catholic mission in honoring President Obama yesterday, I’ve thought all along that the more interesting question was, what will he say when he gets there? Now we know, and it turns out most of it was pretty uninteresting, standard graduation fare. But there were two portions of it that seemed to demand comment. One, on abortion, is obvious, and I’ll get to that in a second. The other was just a throwaway line, but it struck me as exposing serious confusion on a matter of great important. According to the transcript found at Fox News, the president said:
Your generation must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that God can probably handle the upkeep of His own creation, the arrogance as well as ignorance of this is staggering. It assumes that we have the power to “save creation,” and only have to decide how. It assumes that the current condition of the Earth’s climate is static, and that any change means that it is being “destroyed.” It refuses to acknowledge the adaptibility of human beings, who have lived through and often thrived in the face of changes in the climate in the less wealthy and less technologically advanced past. It ignores the fact that “climate change” (formerly known as “global warming,” until the planet inconveniently decided to get cooler for the last decade) is not a zero-sum game, and that lots of people would benefit even as other would not. It confuses the need to do the possible–help people deal with changes to their environment–with the highly unlikely of trying through human technological means to effect change in a planetary climate system. Perhaps most ridiculously, it mistakes the climate of one planet with the entire universe. I don’t know if anyone else caught this–I know I haven’t heard any other comment on it–but it struck me as encapsulating in one sentence why so many people fear the hubris and overweaning ambition for global transformation of the current administration.
Anyway, on to abortion. Here, the president sounded reasonable, and said a number of things with which I have no problem agreeing. It was all couched, however, in an approach to the issue with one very big problem. 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 website — 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 website. 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. (Applause.) Let’s make adoption more available. (Applause.) Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)
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.
I would certainly agree with his desire to reduce unintended pregnancies, increase adoptions, and support women who carry their children to term. Even with the weasel word “sensible,” I’m glad to hear he supports conscience exemptions. I also applaud his call for “sound science” as well as “clear ethics,” and hope that his more ideologically-driven supporters will take what he says to heart. I also appreciate the fact that he acknowledges that while there is some room for agreement on peripherals, the two sides on the fundamental issue of the moral acceptability of abortion are “irreconciliable.” That’s actually an important admission, and brings me to the biggest problem with what he said yesterday.
It sounds great for the president to call to civility in the debate, and we all (including myself) need to avoid the temptation to caricature the other side. But when he says that “each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction,” he’s ignoring a very salient point, which is that the debate is rigged. I’m not referring to the pro-choice bias in the mainstream media, though that hampers the pursuit of a fair public discussion. What I’m referring to is the fact that the courts have short-circuited the discussion, and imposed their preferred solution on a public that continues to debate one of the most contentious moral issues of our age. In other words, it’s easy for the president to say that we should all go on debating the issue with “passion and conviction,” and avoid “caricaturing” the other side, because his side has already been guaranteed the victory. Not in the realm of public opinion, which if last week’s Gallup Poll is any indication the pro-choice side is losing, but in the realm of public policy, where the courts stand as a bulwark assuring that no significant restrictions will ever be put on the abortion licence. That being the case, it is more than a little disingenuous for the president to take an above-the-fray, wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-the-children-would-stop-yelling-at-one-another approach when he knows that his side risks nothing in any form of public debate.
None of this is to say that I’m in favor of a rhetorical scorched-earth policy. Civility in public discussion is a good for it’s own sake. But that doesn’t mean that we should in any way hedge on the truth, which is that from the standpoint of both “sound science” and “clear ethics,” hundreds of thousands of children are being killed in this country every year, the vast majority for reasons of convenience or worse. I hope that the president doesn’t object to truth-telling, even when the other side–his side–finds it more than a little uncomfortable.