For all the controversy surrounding his invitation, President Obama's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday actually offered pro-lifers some causes for optimism. Although it was certainly not his intention, the president's remarks point to the profound and growing weakness of the case for America's radical abortion laws.
Obama himself, of course, is a cause for short-term pessimism: His policies have so far been true to his pre-presidential record, and there is every reason to expect they will continue to be. And that he can often clothe his substantive extremism in the garb of rhetorical moderation — that he can step back and describe the controversy with apparent distance even as he himself pulls hard for one side — further strengthens his cause in the fight.
But his speech should leave pro-lifers optimistic, because it illustrates the transformation of the abortion debate over the past 15 years. Put simply, defenders of the Roe regime seem incapable of making a case for themselves, and when they reach for the vocabulary of American liberal democracy in an effort to make some kind of argument, they end up closer to the case for their opponents.
Here is what Obama had to say on the stem-cell question, for instance, in the course of a larger argument for taking all sides of controversial disputes seriously:
Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved.
That is precisely the case against Obama's stem-cell policy, and in favor of his predecessor's approach: that we don't have to choose between one life and another, but must pursue the course that lets us champion both.
Here is what Obama said about the difficulty of finding common ground:
And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man — our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice.
Here again, in the case against ego, against letting the strong dominate the weak, against letting self-interest govern all our affairs, is the language and logic of the pro-life movement. It is of course also the language and logic of the larger cause of human rights in America, but that's precisely the point: In the case of abortion, that tradition and that logic point decisively away from the Roe regime. The kind of arguments we used to hear in favor of abortion rights even into the mid-1990s involved precisely the language of cruel, crass, egoistic self-interest.
That kind of language has actually grown far more rare now, and with it the case for abortion has grown weaker. At the only point in his speech when Obama came close to making a positive case, he sought to draw on the language of egalitarianism, not the kind of misguided misapplication of the language of liberty we might have heard a generation ago, and it came linked with a case for respecting the freedom of conscience. He said:
Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health-care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.
Here the case against Obama's own position (the case for physician conscience, which his administration has begun to undermine) is far clearer and more accessible than the case in favor of Obama's view — in which he apparently seeks to imply that the equality of women somehow points to an unlimited abortion right. The language of equality is, of course, at the very heart of the pro-life case, and in a far more familiar, accessible, and rational way.
“I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away,” Obama told his audience:
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 the striking thing about his speech, and indeed about the contemporary abortion debate more generally, is the absence of a passionate case from conviction for the Roe regime and for abortion itself. The closest thing to it is the case Obama put at the core of his speech: a defensive case for civility without a substantive position.
There is of course great virtue in civility, but when one side to a dispute argues exclusively for civility, it is often because it understands itself at least implicitly to be on the losing side of the substantive debate. That increasingly seems to be the state of abortion-rights advocates in America, and it is surely part of the reason for the gains abortion opponents have made in public opinion in recent years.
None of this means we are on the verge of a breakthrough. On the contrary. Regardless of where his rhetoric points, President Obama is clearly on the side of the unlimited right to abortion. Between Supreme Court picks, policy decisions (on stem cells, conscience protection, taxpayer funding of abortion, and beyond), and personnel appointments, the Obama years look to be a dark time for pro-lifers. But the decline of the case for abortion is a cause for longer-term optimism. Words and ideas matter immensely in American politics, and it is telling that again and again in his remarks at Notre Dame, when the president reached for the words and ideas of the great American story, he ended up implicitly arguing against himself, and raising questions about his past and present extremism on abortion.
Toward the end of his remarks, although he did not have the abortion debate in mind, Obama called upon his listeners to take note of a moral teaching that we can only hope might help inform that debate in the years to come:
For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It's no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
span class="bioline">Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine. He is the author of Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.