President Barack Obama speaks at America's foremost Roman Catholic University on Sunday, where deep divisions over abortion and stem-cell research have rammed to the forefront in a country fighting two wars and battling a withering economic recession.
A storm broke out immediately after Notre Dame invited Obama to address commencement exercises and he accepted. It still rages, with anti-abortion activists promising to disrupt the new president's appearance at the ceremony, where he also is to receive an honorary degree.
Obama, a liberal Democrat who supports abortion rights but who says the procedure should be rare, finds himself caught in the so-called "right to life" whirlwind that has riven U.S. society for decades, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1973 Roe v.
Wade case that states may not ban abortion. Recriminations against Obama's appearance in South Bend, Indiana, are zinging across the Internet, on cable television and the editorial space of newspapers. _ a debate that is electric and fundamental to American political and moral tenets. The Catholic church and many other Christian denominations hold that abortion or the use of embryos for stem cell research amounts to the destruction of human life, is morally wrong and should be banned by law.
The contrary argument holds that women have the right to terminate any pregnancy and that unused embryos created outside the womb for couples who cannot otherwise conceive should be available for stem cell research, which holds the promise of finding treatments for some of mankind's most debilitating ailments. Within weeks of taking office, Obama eased a Bush administration executive order that limited such research to a small number of stem-cell strains that existed when the former president issued the directive.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama in his commencement speech "obviously would make mention of the debate that's been had" over abortion, while emphasizing that "this is exactly the kind of give and take that is had on college campus all over the country."
Obama's appearance at Notre Dame would appear to be complicated significantly by new polls that show Americans' attitudes on the explosive issue have shifted dramatically toward the anti-abortion position.
A Gallup survey released on Friday found that 51 percent of Americans call themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42 percent "pro-choice." This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as "pro-life" since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.
It's a dramatic shift from just a year ago when Gallup found that 50 percent of those polled termed themselves "pro-choice" while 44 percent described their beliefs as "pro-life."
A Pew Research Center survey found a similar, if less dramatic, shift, with public opinion about abortion more closely divided than it has been in several years.
Pew said its latest polling found that 46 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in most (28 percent) or all cases (18 percent). Forty-four percent of those surveyed were opposed to abortion in most (28 percent) or all cases (16 percent). Gallup said shifting opinions on the divisive issue lay almost entirely with Republicans or independents who lean Republican, with opposition among those groups rising over the past year from 60 percent to 70 percent. "There has been essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners," the Gallup organization said.
The abortion issue, meanwhile, also is front and center as Obama vets potential nominees to fill the vacancy left by the retirement this summer of Justice David Souter. Abortion opponents are determined to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but only four court justices out of nine have backed that position. Souter has opposed arguments for overturning the key ruling.
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, has not joined the fiery debate that erupted after Obama's invitation, but it has produced extraordinary blow back among some students, faculty, alumni and at least 70 Catholic bishops. A leading Catholic scholar, citing the Obama invitation and honorary degree, declined the school's most prestigious award, making this year's commencement the first time that the Laetare Medal hasn't been awarded since 1883. "It is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said shortly after the university announced Obama's appearance.
Friends and colleagues say Jenkins has listened to the criticism but is confident in his decision. "He respects people who differ, but he's resolute in his decision because he did it based on conscience and what he really believes in," said Richard Notebaert, chairman of Notre Dame's board of trustees.
Notebaert said Jenkins, who is in the fourth year of a five-year term, has the "full support" of the trustees. That hasn't soothed critics, who question whether Notre Dame has lost touch with its Catholic roots. Calls for Jenkins' ouster have grown louder amid protests by abortion opponents, who have flown pictures of aborted fetuses over campus and paraded dolls smeared in fake blood outside a recent trustees' meeting. Dozens of anti-abortion activists have been arrested, and more arrests are likely as protesters converge on the campus for commencement weekend.