And what its failure teaches us about our broken politics.
The issue of abortion has roiled American politics for decades because the issue raises potent political ideas and values: life, liberty, privacy, autonomy and power. It brings to mind inherently personal questions: Who deserves a future? How far into our personal lives should the values and ethics of our community reach? For many people, abortion makes us think of our families, and of the family members who were or were not born. We think of our own existence, and whether there is inherent value in that alone. At what point did I matter? At what point did you?
Given the personal nature of these questions, it should be of little surprise that as politics have become more tribal, the politics of abortion have become more polarized—something I observed as a staffer in The White House Faith-Based Office during President Barack Obama’s first term and director of faith outreach for his reelection campaign.
Obama launched his political career with a speech in 2004 that decried political divisions and attested, in the face of some liberals’ squeamishness over religion in politics, that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states.” In the early days of his presidency, and in keeping with this spirit of collaboration, Obama also pursued an initiative across ideological lines to reduce abortions. This effort at bipartnership failed. The story of that failure is a window into some of our ugliest partisan tendencies: Democrats’ unwillingness to take religious groups’ objections seriously and thoughtfully; Republicans’ unwillingness to let Democrats be known for any progress on an issue so close to their party. It is a window into what, exactly, we’re going up against at a time of deep political division.
This history of abortion politics, national and personal, made what the president did five months into his first term—near the height of his political capital—both surprising and risky. Obama went to Notre Dame University to deliver a commencement address to try to build a bridge. The run-up to the address was tense. I had the sense that many members of the president’s staff viewed the effort as futile at best, and a solicitation of distraction and division at worst. There was some merit to their concerns. Notre Dame’s decision to grant Obama an honorary degree (a conventional thing to do for any commencement speaker) was met with criticism and protest from conservative Catholics and anti-abortion activists. Some called for the president of the university to resign.
Rather than give an easier, predictable speech on an issue where there was more traditional agreement between Democrats and Catholic institutions, Obama decided to address the potential for common ground on abortion. On the way to South Bend in Air Force One, the president reviewed his speech and replaced the compromise language that had become commonplace since it became part of the 2008 Democratic platform—“reducing the need for abortion”— with “reduce the number of women seeking abortions.” It was a small but significant change.
At Notre Dame, Obama told the crowd the story of Farr Curlin, a Chicago doctor who had emailed Obama in 2004 during his Senate campaign and asked the candidate to use “fair-minded words” when discussing the religiously and emotionally complex subject of abortion. He held up that exchange as the moment when he stepped back from demonizing the other side, and prayed “that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.” He continued, “because when we do that … we discover at least the possibility of common ground.” The president was asking anti-abortion Americans to give him a chance.
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