Can a pro-choice president lead a pro-life majority?

How you look at things.
May 20 2009 7:55 AM

The Two Faces of Barack Obama

Can a pro-choice president lead a pro-life majority?

President Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama speaks at Notre Dame's commencement

"Obama Calls for 'Common Ground' on Abortion at Notre Dame,"said the headline at CNN. That's a fair description: The president used the phrase three times in his Sunday commencement address. But common ground can't quite convey what he was getting at. Common ground is a two-dimensional metaphor. Abortion is more complicated than that, and so is Obama.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

"We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity—diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief," the president told the graduates. "In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family." That's a standard American theme: e pluribus unum—out of many, one.

Within the United States, there's been a long-running fight over what this idea means. One view says we're a melting pot and immigrants should assimilate. Another view says diversity is a right and should be protected. Which view does Obama take? Both. Here and abroad, he sees a single family with a variety of beliefs.

Is this a cop-out? In two-dimensional space, it looks that way: You have to pick one side or the other. But what if the issue you're debating is really multidimensional? What if there's more than one other side? What if the alternative view you're grappling with isn't the negation of yours? What if it's a different perspective, a sideways view, on the same reality? Can both perspectives be true?

Most political issues are like that. To depict them fairly, you need extra dimensions. My favorite representation of this concept is the carved cube on the cover of Godel, Escher, Bach. Is it a G, an E, or a B? Answer: all of the above. It depends which way you look at it.

Abortion is the classic multidimensional issue. Years ago, when I was writing a book about it, one person after another told me, "The issue is about …" Each person ended the sentence differently. Eventually, I got the picture: The issue is about what the issue is about. Some people believe it's about protecting human life. Others believe it's about women's rights. Some say it's about taking responsibility for sex. Others say it's about poverty and preventing unwanted children. Some think it's about preserving the family. Others think it's about limiting the power of the church or the government.

Every day, in Congress, courts, state legislatures, and informal conversations, people who see the issue one way try to engage people who see it a slightly different way. It's a labor of imagination and persuasion, and the stakes are enormous. Since no single perspective commands a majority, the political outcome hangs on this struggle for alliances.

That's what Obama was getting at Sunday when he said that people who disagree about abortion's legality "can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions." Legality and morality aren't always opposing principles on a flat battleground. They can be alternative dimensions of the same thing. In his April 29 press conference, Obama made this multiplicity of perspectives quite clear:

There are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with, and families and individual women have to wrestle with. The reason I'm pro-choice is because I don't think women take that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day, and I think they are in a better position to make these decision ultimately than members of Congress or a president. …

Is it dishonest to be morally pro-life but legally pro-choice? Or is it a recognition that the issue has more contours than absolutists perceive?

"The views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory," the president observed in his speech. And how. Beliefnet's Steve Waldman points to a recent Third Way survey  in which 69 percent of Americans said abortion was the "taking of a human life," but 72 percent nevertheless said it should be legal. This is a long-standing pattern, underscored by a new Gallup poll in which for "the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life." The National Right to Life Committee thinks this poll discredits the notion that the country favors abortion rights. Conversely, NARAL Pro-Choice America thinks the poll numbers are fishy because they "do not square with the voting patterns in the last two elections cycles." But what if, once again, both are true? What if we're more pro-life morally than legally? Look at Gallup's numbers. They show a seven-point increase in the percentage of people calling themselves "pro-life" but only a three-point increase in the percentage who think abortion should be mostly or fully illegal.

I don't find the opposing data hard to square at all.  NARAL is right: Voters last year elected a pro-choice president and added eight and 44 seats, respectively, to pro-choice ranks in the U.S. Senate and House. That's why you'd expect the "pro-life" number to go up in this year's Gallup poll. People feel more confident that abortion will stay legal, and therefore they're more willing to focus on their moral discomfort with it. The ups and down of abortion polling have always followed this reactive dynamic. Look again at Gallup's data. The percentage of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" trended up during the Clinton administration and then down during the Bush administration, right up until Democrats captured Congress in 2006.

Smart pro-lifers understand the multidimensionality of public opinion. That's why, in his introduction of Obama, Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, urged fellow pro-lifers to "appeal to ethical principles that might be persuasive to others." Obama understands it, too: He challenged fellow pro-choicers to "open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do." Understanding other perspectives isn't just a courtesy. It's a strategy.

To some pro-lifers, this is just an Obama spin game. His "mellifluous words," they argue, are meaningless cover for a hard-core record of funding abortion and embryo destruction. Even the concession he cited in his address as an example of outreach to pro-lifers was insubstantial. "I didn't change my underlying position," he noted, "but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site." What kind of compromise is that?

Still, Obama's acknowledgment of the issue's complexity is important for two reasons. First, he's dropping the pretense of a conclusive answer. "I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away," he conceded. "Each side will continue to make its case to the public." Accepting multidimensionality means accepting that one dimension can't foreclose others. Preserving abortion's legality will never make it moral or, for that reason, politically safe.

Second, as I learned from writing my book, even strategic or symbolic dialogue can bring unforeseen consequences. The seducer can be seduced. When you listen, you hear things. You entertain unfamiliar ideas. You might even change your mind. As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick points out, Obama has already adjusted his positions on military tribunals, indefinite detention, rendition, abuse photos, and state secrets. Is he weak or open-minded? That depends on your perspective. Either way, the guy clearly listens.

The knowledge that God's "wisdom is greater than our own … should humble us," Obama told the graduates. "It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate." That kind of openness is scary. It threatens the primacy of the perspective from which you entered the debate. But maybe that's the point.

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