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Obama calls for understanding in Notre Dame speech

President Barack Obama is hooded by Notre Dame registrar Harold Pace, left, and chairman of the board of trustees Richard C. Notebaert as he receives an honorary doctorate.
President Barack Obama is hooded by Notre Dame registrar Harold Pace, left, and chairman of the board of trustees Richard C. Notebaert as he receives an honorary doctorate.
Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (MCT) — Confronting the nation's deep schism over abortion, President Barack Obama on Sunday called for greater understanding on all sides as he spoke to graduates and others at one of America's premier Catholic universities.

Obama stressed the importance of common ground as opponents of abortion rights protested his appearance and the honorary degree he received from the University of Notre Dame.

"Let's reduce unintended pregnancies," he said. "Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term."

Still, Obama acknowledged some differences will be irreconcilable, as he spoke to about 12,000 people inside the university's basketball arena.

Displaying his well-established rhetorical ability and history of reaching out to people of faith — techniques that have helped him confront more contentious situations, such as when a controversial former pastor threatened his presidential candidacy in 2008 — Obama called for each side to avoid turning the other into a "caricature."

Since his acceptance in late March of the university's invitation, a national furor has brewed over whether such a prominent supporter of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research should be honored by the school. His speech, however, won strong reviews both inside and outside the arena.

"President Obama did exactly what he needed to do," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "He challenged the students to take on the problems of the day; he spoke beyond them to the wider audience of Catholic citizens and presented a demeanor that contrasted with those who tried to paint him as a demonic, anti-life fanatic."

As a candidate and as president, Obama has promoted policies popular with abortion-rights supporters, while also suggesting he wants to rise above the fierce rhetoric that often surrounds the issue.

The president's speech was interrupted briefly three times by shouts from protesters inside the Joyce Center, as hundreds of others protested on campus and outside the school's gates.

"Abortion is murder!" one man yelled. "Stop killing our children!" another said. The protesters were booed and escorted from the arena.

Obama said the Notre Dame controversy reminded him of a letter he received from a doctor who voted for him in the 2004 U.S. Senate primary in Illinois. He said the man complained about language on Obama's campaign Web site that suggested "right-wing ideologues" wanted to take away a woman's right to choose.

"The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person," he said. "But that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable."

Wearing the blue gown of the university, Obama said he did not change his position on the issue, but did instruct his staff to change the language on his Web site. He said he also said a prayer that night to ask that he might extend the same presumption of good faith to others.

"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," he said.

A few graduates wore mortarboards decorated with yellow crosses and tiny footprints, a display of support for opponents of abortion rights, while other caps displayed Obama's campaign logo.

The Notre Dame speech comes as the White House has started to bring together abortion-rights supporters and opponents to discuss proposals to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

The meetings began about a month ago and are expected to run a couple more months, with the goal of having a proposal by late summer. The White House is interested in ideas such as sex education, contraception and adoption.