In an NRO commentary four years ago, I wrote that after “eight years of George Bush’s unabashed pro-life advocacy” Obama supporters would “expect a massive correction in abortion policy, and rhetoric.” Policy change they got from the get-go. During his first 45 days in office the new president rescinded the Mexico City ban on federal funding for abortions abroad; rescinded his predecessor’s ban on the creation of new stem-cell lines for embryo-killing research; and announced that he would also rescind Bush-era conscience-clause protection for health-care workers (which HHS did in 2011).
And then the Rescinder went to Notre Dame, rhetorically armed and ready for his close-up. “If he is going to reconsider his views,” Father John Jenkins, the university’s president, remarked at the time, “I think Notre Dame is the best possible place to begin that process.” Father Jenkins, who filed a lawsuit last year when Obama refused to reconsider his views on the HHS contraception mandate, was defending the university’s decision to bestow an honorary law degree on someone who never missed an opportunity to genuflect before Roe v. Wade.
There had been considerable criticism of the awarding of that degree: Over 80 bishops denounced the decision and hundreds of thousands of pewsitters signed protest petitions. But in the end Obama was heartily welcomed by the Catholic crowd at South Bend and his abortion-endorsing speech received lusty applause. Obama and Father Jenkins — who in introducing the president had praised him for being “not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him” — were photographed in warm embrace, noble exemplars of the “Civil Tone in Abortion Debate” that, a front-page New York Times story the next day blasted, Obama had called for at Notre Dame.
As it happened, the graduation coincided with the 55th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, “the first major step,” as Obama instructed his youthful audience, “in dismantling the separate-but-equal doctrine.” However, he went on, “it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children.” Pro-lifers hearing such language wanted to pull their hair out: How could Obama talk about civil rights for all of God’s children in a nation beset by a decades-long abortion plague? More recently, how could he assert, in a speech about protecting children from gun violence, that “we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us”?#more#
Obama can talk this way because, for him, this has not been a plague: In the philosophy of the abortocratic class — a philosophy he embodies — not all human beings are bearers of inalienable rights. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Our president passes this test. Indeed, Obama’s Notre Dame speech was all about holding in mind two opposed ideas:
Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, 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.
What this first-rate intelligence was really calling for at Notre Dame was a separate-but-equal doctrine on abortion: Whichever decision the pregnant woman makes — to keep or to kill the human creature growing in her womb — is to be afforded honor and respect. This is what it means to be pro-choice: to hold radically opposing ideas without even acknowledging that they are in tension. On the one hand, the pro-choicer coos at a sonograph and recoils at an image of aborted body parts; on the other, he moves on without giving either one too much thought, in effect accepting both as morally, legally, and aesthetically equal.
“Maybe we won’t agree on abortion,” Obama told the graduation flock, “but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.” And if these heart-wrenching decisions add up to 1.2 million abortions a year, so be it. Numbers don’t matter, because abortion in this calculus has the same moral and spiritual weight as childbearing. The act itself, the killing, can even be presented as healing, for the woman is spared the “punishment” (as President Obama once called it when referring to his daughters) of having to endure an unwanted pregnancy. In an abortion, she isn’t delivered of a child but rather of a dehumanized, disposable “fetus.”
Obama says we will continue to make our arguments with passion and conviction. Meanwhile he acts: He oversaw the removal of “rare” — as in abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” — from the Democratic platform in 2008; and in 2012, he ran a convention that was a veritable paean to abortion. His signature legislative accomplishment as president, Obamacare, was passed only after he bought off Democratic pro-life politicians including (former) Senator Ben Nelson and (former) Representative Bart Stupak. I never fully comprehended what Yeats meant in his poem “The Second Coming” when he said “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” before seeing in the last four years some of the best, and I mean the best — the chief justice of the Supreme Court — yield to Obama.
I think what the pro-life movement needs now more than anything else is someone (better yet, many someones) willing to endure what Bart Stupak called the “living hell” of standing athwart this unabashedly abortocratic administration.
— Anne Conlon is managing editor of the Human Life Review and editor of The Age of Roe: Eugenics, Euthanasia, and Other Assaults on the Dignity of Human Life, a companion volume to The Debate Since Roe: Making the Case Against Abortion (2010); both are collections of HLR essays published between 1975 and 2012.