Presidential visit spurs furor at Notre Dame
Abortion rights debate spills beyond campus
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – President Barack Obama’s planned visit to the University of Notre Dame later this spring has triggered a national debate over whether such a prominent supporter of abortion rights should be welcomed at one of America’s premier Catholic universities.
Obama’s decision to speak at the school’s May 17 commencement is generating strong feelings on all sides, with supporters saying he should be welcomed as the nation’s leader and opponents saying he should be shunned because of his views.
As the leaders of campus groups upset about his selection prepared to meet Tuesday evening to map out opposition plans, abortion protesters from across the country said they were making plans to travel there for the commencement.
The prospect of graphic abortion photos lining areas leading into the ceremony, meanwhile, has some students fearing that their day of accomplishment will be tarnished.
“Both my grandmothers are coming,” said Billy Lyman, a senior from Glenview, Ill. “They don’t want to see that on their way into the ceremony. Nobody should be subjected to that on such a happy day. I’m really concerned the day is going to be marred.”
Among opponents of abortion rights, there is talk of not applauding after the president speaks. Lyman, who has supported Obama since his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, said such protests make him “embarrassed to be a Catholic.”
On Tuesday, a bishop whose diocese includes Notre Dame said he would not attend the commencement, citing as one of his factors Obama’s recent decision to federally fund embryonic stem-cell research.
“While claiming to separate politics from science, he has in fact separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life,” Bishop John D’Arcy, of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said in a statement.
The White House responded by noting that Notre Dame would be one of the first universities Obama would visit as president and that the school has a history of vigorous debate.
“He does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “The spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country.”
For some, however, Obama simply is not welcome.
“In many ways, the president does not have a whole lot in line with the mission of this university, especially in terms of its Catholicism,” said Mary Daly, president of the campus Right to Life club. “People look to this university as a leading example of American Catholicism.”
National organizations, meanwhile, are mobilizing to protest.
The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to the “renewal” of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities, issued an alert on its Web site. As of Tuesday evening, the organization claimed more than 85,000 had signed an online petition to stop the “scandal.”
The Pro-Life Action League is urging supporters to call university president Rev. John Jenkins to ask him to un-invite Obama, something a university spokesman has said is highly unlikely.
The university’s president declined an interview request, although he has issued a statement praising Obama and noting the many challenges he faces.
“It is of special significance that we will hear from our first African-American president, a person who has spoken eloquently and movingly about race in this nation,” Jenkins wrote. “Racial prejudice has been a deep wound in America, and Mr. Obama has been a healer.”
The university president added that the invitation does not imply the school supports all of Obama’s positions. “We see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement,” he said.