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Obama Calls for ‘Common Ground’ on Abortion Debate

May 18, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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In his commencement speech at Notre Dame University, President Obama urged those on both sides of the abortion debate to seek "common ground" in dialogue on the divisive topic. Analysts examine public opinion on the abortion issue.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a status report on the politics of abortion, and to Judy Woodruff.

PROTESTER: That’s what it is: child-killing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid protests on and off campus, the president took the issue of abortion head on during a widely anticipated commencement address yesterday at the University of Notre Dame, one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic universities.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: 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.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama’s call for a common ground came just a few days after the release of a new Gallup poll, which found that 51 percent of Americans identify themselves as pro-life, while 42 percent consider themselves pro- choice. That is a near reversal from last year’s poll, and it marks the first time since Gallup began asking the question, in 1995, that the pro-life view has outweighed pro-choice.

PROTESTER: Thou shalt not kill!

JUDY WOODRUFF: The decision by Notre Dame to invite Mr. Obama, whose views on issues such as abortion and stem cells stands in contrast to those of the Catholic Church, sparked protests off campus from hundreds of pro-life advocates.

Some of the 2,900 graduating students also sought ways to express their pro-life views. About two dozen or so graduates reportedly did not attend the ceremony, while a handful of others engaged in silent protest, taping images of crosses and baby feet to their mortarboards.

PROTESTER: You have blood on your hands!

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama was also interrupted a couple of times by hecklers, who were quickly drowned out by the overwhelmingly supportive crowd.

During his speech, the president acknowledged that differences of opinion over abortion were likely to remain, but said he hoped the tone of the debate could change.

BARACK OBAMA: 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. Open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words, it’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s plea for open minds on abortion could face an early test, as the issue is likely to be at the center of debate over the president’s pick to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court.

Public shift in opinion on abortion

Amy Walter
The Hotline
It is the first time since Gallup has asked this question that more people identified themselves as pro-life than pro-choice. It's 51 percent to 42 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on where the country stands on the abortion question, I'm joined by Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's political daily, and Steven Waldman, founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, a Web site focused on religion and spirituality.

Amy Walter, to you first. What do we know about where the public stands on this question of abortion? How significant is this new Gallup poll maybe showing a shift?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Right, well, as you pointed out in the opening, it is the first time since Gallup has asked this question that more people identified themselves as pro-life than pro-choice. It's 51 percent to 42 percent. If you go back to when they first started asking the question, 56 percent of people in 1995 identified themselves as pro-choice, 33 percent as pro-life.

I think what's really interesting, though, in digging through the Gallup poll is they note that the shift that they've seen is among Republicans. There is a 10-point difference in Republicans identifying as pro-life now that identified as pro-choice before.

And so I think some of this is more political than it is policy or personal, that if you have people who identify themselves as Republicans, in a year where a Republican pro-life president is in place versus a time when you have a Democratic pro-choice president in place, it's not that surprising then that their views on the issue are really based more on who's in the White House and maybe their stance on the actual issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Waldman, how do you see the public opinion on this? And when you look beneath the straightforward question, are you pro-life or pro-choice, what do you find?

STEVEN WALDMAN, Beliefnet: Well, the key point is that, once again, the majority of the population is in the middle, which is to say, they want abortion to be legal, but with restrictions. So the big question is, what kind of restrictions? And when is it legal?

And one of the frustrating things about this whole debate is that very often the debate does not actually mirror public opinion. Even taking the phrase "pro-life," if you're someone who thinks that abortion ought to be legal but there ought to be fewer of them because you think that it's a bad thing, does that make you pro-choice or pro-life?

Debate 'dominated by activists'

Steven Waldman
Beliefnet.com
I think the debate tends to be dominated by the activists, and that makes it very hard to have a civil debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I guess my question is, when you say most people are in the middle, we heard President Obama say yesterday the two sides are irreconcilable. How does that square with the idea that most people are in the middle?

STEVEN WALDMAN: You have two polls, and they're each about the same size. About 23 percent want abortion to be legal all the time; another 23 percent think that it should be illegal all the time. And those are the two poles that won't agree.

Then you have all the people in the middle who are on a spectrum and have a much more nuanced view. Obama during the campaign, when he started talking about common ground -- which polled very well, by the way -- started to get a very positive response. People like this idea.

But he hasn't yet gotten to the hardest part, which is the policy, not the words, of how can you create policy that is going to appeal not so much to those two groups on the ends, but to the people in the middle?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, I hear you saying that part of this is a political -- people are looking at it through a political prism?

AMY WALTER: I think it's very hard not to look at it through a political prism. And I also think that these labels now, they change as we go through a political process, what pro-life means, what pro-choice means, very different in 1995 than in 2009.

And I think the real issue that Obama got to throughout that speech was the fact that the old labels really aren't working so much anymore. I think the debate is going to be -- and you've seen this in states and you've seen in this in campaigns, where they have -- you know, in states where you have ballot initiatives or in campaigns where the issue comes up -- the debate about the reasonableness factor.

And so where you see voters start to balk one way or the other is when they feel like it's getting, as Steven pointed out, pushed too far to one pole or too far to the other pole.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Waldman, you had the president saying he hopes the tone of the debate will change, but do you truly have in this country right now a dialogue, a real debate going on about abortion?

STEVEN WALDMAN: I think the debate tends to be dominated by the activists, and that makes it very hard to have a civil debate.

Now, in the middle, there definitely is a debate, I mean, is a dialogue. People, you know, on Beliefnet, we see this all the time, women who say that they're pro-choice, but go in heart-wrenching detail through the moral calculation they made where they do try to figure out where life begins.

And substantively there was a really interesting moment in that speech, which was -- that Obama has essentially two parts to his formulation. He says he wants to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, and then there's a second half, which is that those women who want to bring the pregnancy to term and then maybe put up the baby for adoption should also be able to do that without too much trouble.

That's a second thrust, and it's something that Obama had said during the campaign and then dropped after the election. So the fact that he made that point again, I found significant. And it may be that those shifting poll numbers showing more people pro-life will put the pressure on Obama from the pro-life direction.

Public dialogue is difficult

Amy Walter
The Hotline
This isn't going to be about people sitting around the table and wondering philosophically how they can get along. This will pit one side against the other, and the language will probably not necessarily be one that says, "Let's join forces."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, so bringing those two elements in, could that constitute a real public dialogue on this debate?

AMY WALTER: That we actually get the public into the debate rather than it being politicized...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

AMY WALTER: ... that's often hard to do because the reality in many campaigns is, the winners and the losers are defined by who defines the issue, right? And so we don't know where this issue is going to pop up next, how it's going to be put into the context of a campaign.

And I think asking this question simply as pro-life or pro-choice also doesn't get to the real issues for people. Getting a campaign where you are asking specifically, what do you think about the issue of parental consent, yes or no? What do you think about these sets of restrictions, yes or no? That is the place where you may be able to have a bit of the dialogue on it, where it's getting past just the "do you define yourself as pro-life or pro-choice"?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So I guess that leads to my next question, Steven Waldman. What is the point of a debate if you've got these irreconcilable views on either side, as the president reminded us again yesterday? What does a dialogue produce? What's the purpose of it?

STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, one purpose is that there are actual policies that don't deal with the fundamental questions, but actually could reduce the number of abortions.

You could make either family planning or unintended pregnancies less likely. You could make it easy for women to put babies up for adoption. That could actually reduce the number of abortions. It wouldn't resolve the fundamental philosophical questions, but that's a real impact.

There's another issue which we see all the time on Beliefnet, and which is also reflected in the polls, which is that people don't just want there to be fewer abortions. They want them to be earlier. In a way, it's not safe, legal and rare. It's safe, legal and early.

And they would like to see policies that make it so that those abortions that do happen, happen in the first trimester instead of in the third trimester.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that was not something the president raised yesterday.

AMY WALTER: No, and I don't think that that was the place that he wanted to go actually to get into the specifics of this. And this is what he's done so well throughout the campaign and throughout his first few months here as president, which is, get back to that change mantra and that place about, "Let's get away from the old labels. Let's get away from the old debates that we've had and try to find common ground."

It is very disarming to folks when you come at them with open hands rather than a fist. But we know that the one place where we may see this debate is in the Supreme Court nomination where, again, we're not going to have a dialogue. This isn't going to be about people sitting around the table and wondering philosophically how they can get along. This will pit one side against the other, and the language will probably not necessarily be one that says, "Let's join forces."

Debate to continue over nominee

Steven Waldman
Beliefnet.com
I think it's, in a way, unfortunate that the first test will be over the Supreme Court nominee, because the question of legality is an inherently polarizing one. And there's all sorts of questions about abortion that don't relate to legality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So given that, Steven Waldman, are we really going to have a dialogue in the near term about this? Is it just going to be a fight?

STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, I think it's, in a way, unfortunate that the first test will be over the Supreme Court nominee, because the question of legality is an inherently polarizing one. And there's all sorts of questions about abortion that don't relate to legality. You can have it be legal and still want to discourage it.

Where the dialogue will happen is probably in the fall when the task force that the White House has created to come up with a common-ground proposal actually finishes their work and you start to see there whether or not a coalition can actually form around concrete common ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, thank you for reminding us about that. Steven Waldman, Amy Walter, thank you both.