In his much-anticipated commencement address at the University of Notre Dame yesterday, Barack Obama tried to take the middle ground in a debate where the opposing views are irreconcilable. He said so himself.

There’s no solution to the abortion debate; there are only ways of trying to take the heat out of the debate. Obama appealed to each side to respect those with differing views.

It’s a big ask. Every Saturday morning a dozen or more pro-life activists picket the local Planned Parenthood building down the street. They shout at the cars going in and out, pray fervently and try to be nice to passers-by.

“They are killing babies in there today”, one man said as we walked by. Another protester, now gone, preferred: “Mommy, Mommy, please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me”.

By showing disrespect for the President those who interrupted Obama broke a powerful taboo. The three or four hecklers were vigorously shouted down by the huge crowd. They chanted “Yes we can”, even though most were probably pro-life. But trashing the President is not on.

Before the event a number of demonstrators were arrested, including Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff known as “Roe” in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. She is now an anti-abortion activist.

Winning over McCorvey was a victory for pro-lifers. In recent days they have had another. A Gallup poll found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans describe themselves as “pro-life” — 51% versus 42% who describe themselves as “pro-choice” — a big turnaround from a year ago when the numbers ran 44% to 51% the other way.

As most of those who have shifted are Republicans, the poll figures suggest taking a stronger stance against abortion is a way of protesting against Obama’s election victory.

Pro-lifers have an endless list of complaints against Obama, including appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff. Both are unforgivably pro-choice, as are dozens of other appointments.

Former neo-con House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism, questioned Notre Dame’s Catholic credentials. For those who see the world this way, abortion is a marker of a wider cultural rift. A Vatican Archbishop objected to the university honouring a man “who is so aggressively advancing an anti-life and anti-family agenda”.

For American conservatives it is not possible to be both pro-choice and pro-family. Yet Barack and Michelle Obama are a model of the perfect modern family. They make monogamy and responsible parenthood look cool. That ought to translate into fewer abortions.

Peter Fray

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