Wake Up the Echoes
Abortion emerged as the acid test of the culture wars in the aftermath of the 1973, all-or-nothing, Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The Court has since revisited the issue, at times chipping away at abortion rights (parental notification, restrictions on late term abortions), but Roe has stood the test of time and is largely considered stare decisis, or settled law, by the legal community.
Abortion is sure to rise to the fore once more in the weeks to come as President Obama introduces his first Supreme Court nominee to replace the retiring Justice Souter. Ironically, many of the left feared Souter's appointment to the Court, predicting that he would provide the decisive fifth vote to overturn Roe. Little did they know that this "stealth" Justice would drift to the liberal bloc and stand as an adamant defender of the landmark decision.
Interesting enough, despite President Obama's decisive victory in the November election, American's are slowly moving away from his pro-choice position on abortion. According to an article on Politico.com, parsing a new Gallup poll, "The percentage of Americans who identify as 'pro-life' jumped from 44 percent to 51 percent in the last year, according to the poll. Those who identify as 'pro-choice' fell from 50 percent to 42 percent over the same period."
Short of a sea change, these numbers provide testament to the fact that Americans continue to hold complicated, and sometimes conflicting views on abortion. But deep fissures remain, and Obama acknowledged them in his speech.
The president said "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."
If the differences are indeed "irreconcilable," how can we progress as a society and avoid South Bend-like standoffs? Obama's olive branch included working to make abortion more rare, to prevent unwanted pregnancies, to care for mothers who bring their babies to term, and to make adoption more accessible. He also held out conscience clauses for medical practitioners and enhanced health care ethics that respect women's rights.
These specific prescriptions aside, there is value in constructive dialogue over this issue and others. President Obama and Notre Dame refused to shirk controversy and a national conversation ensued. Let's hope a healthy debate continues.