By Don Klein
Abortion is an combustible topic. Adherents on both sides of this issue are often too passionate to really illuminate the subject. Few really stop and examine what is really at stake.
When the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling of the Supreme Court was issued it did not outlaw anything. It did not force anyone to do anything. Unlike most laws, it is not restrictive. It liberated pregnant women to do what they felt was right in early pregnancy. It left the decision of abortion in the hands of women.
Most significantly it took abortion off the criminal docket. No patient or health provider would be prosecuted for participating in an abortion. It legalized the right to choose. At the same time it did not prohibit those who opposed this right from not seeking abortions. No one was required to have an abortion.
It could, in a most extreme of example, be compared to the right of legal representation when accused of a crime. All citizens have a right to a lawyer even if they cannot afford one, but not all defendants exercise that option. They are free to appear in court without an attorney, although that might not be very wise.
We have many rights that we don’t use and no one gets worked into a frenzy over them. We have the right to travel freely all over the country but many never use it. We have a right to send our children to public schools, but some parents find alternatives. We have a right to vote and don’t always go to the polls. Those are just a few rights we don’t use.
Yet no one goes into a tantrum when others exercise the very rights we might ignore. Not so with abortions. Why is that? Because in the case of abortion we run into religious principle. That brings up the next question. Why should religious belief matter in a country which prides itself in separation of church and state and which in all other matters of religion is extremely tolerant?
That’s a hard question to answer when talking about abortion, but it is based on the fact that opponents of Roe vs. Wade hope to repeal the law by consistent and virulent confrontation at every level possible.
The current Notre Dame controversy over whether to have invited the president of the United States to address university graduates this spring and to offer him an honorary law degree is a case in point. Opponents are taking a misguided political stance to promote their resistance to abortion rights.
Barack Obama believes that the federal government has no place in dictating to women whether to have an abortion or not. That is a personal matter out of reach of government and therefore he leaves the subject to the conscience of individuals to deal with. He would agree to counseling against having abortions, but would not try to ban the procedure.
There are many people who think that stance is balanced and a pretty fair approach to the subject of abortion. Advise against the practice, but avoid prohibition. That to me covers both sides of the extremely volatile issue. However, to those who have an emotional attachment to banning abortions or have religious objections, it does not seem to be enough.
So based on Obama’s stand on abortion, an element of the university’s students, faculty and alumni are audibly opposed to even inviting him to the South Bend commencement ceremony.
In putting this into perspective, we must recall that every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower on has been invited to speak at Notre Dame. Actually, it is a distinct honor to have the president come to any school to deliver an address. Most institutions of higher learning never get such a lofty visitor.
Obama is doing the correct thing. He is holding his peace while others deliberate over the wisdom of the invitation. Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, follows the dictums of the Vatican which is flatly and unambiguously opposed to abortions. It claims it violates church law and is immoral.
It is a single issue objection. There is no other reason given by those in resistance to the president’s visit. It is foolish to think that not receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame would matter much to Obama, a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School and the one time editor of the distinguished Harvard Law Review – and now US president and the most powerful man in the world.
Actually, there are many who think fighting legal abortions is beating a dead horse. During the eight years of the Bush administration, when the president was an outspoken adherent of the so-called right to life movement, there was no attempt to reverse Roe vs. Wade even when the majority of Supreme Court justices were Catholic. It seems most politicians are not willing to move on this issue for fear of voter recriminations on election day. All they are willing to do is offer lip service to appease the anti-abortion activists.
It will be interesting to see the outcome at Notre Dame. Will the university stand up for academic independence and free expression in a temple of learning or will it succumb to the wishes of those embittered zealots who feel that a president who has a different opinion on this subject should be denied the honor a university of stature has to bestow?
Of course as Americans they are free to disagree with any opinion, including the president’s, but instead of being discordant wouldn’t it be more useful to greet and listen to a honorable man of great personal achievement, of historic accomplishment and perhaps the most eloquent orator of these times. His speech might well be a memorable moment in the lives of those in attendance.