Obama’s sermon at Notre Dame

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Issues such as the abortion controversy cannot be resolved without real leadership, and Barack Obama—demagoguery aside—is providing none.

By Tom Eley // Dateline: 19 May 2009

Please see our bonus feature below: Dr. George Tiller’s work

Pro-choice activists gather in San Francisco to mourn the assassination of Dr. George Tiller.

President Barack Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame University took on heightened political significance after several weeks of a media-hyped protest by anti-abortion fanatics denouncing the presence of a supposedly “pro-choice” president at the nation’s leading Catholic university. As it turned out, the reactionary campaign mustered little more than one hundred protesters, most of whom were brought to the campus from other locations. Residents of South Bend, Indiana—where Notre Dame is located—were overwhelmingly hostile to the anti-abortion fanatics and their publicity-minded campaign. Even after weeks of a right-wing media campaign spearheaded by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, the overwhelming majority of Notre Dame students were hostile to anti-abortion forces. The handful of protesters who tried to disrupt Obama’s speech were completely drowned out by chants from the crowd.

This outcome was not particularly surprising. National opinion polls show that a very sizable majority of the population opposes further restrictions on abortion, and that there remains a strong consensus in support of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973. Randall Terry, one of the principal protest leaders, publicly admitted that the aim of the Notre Dame campaign was to revive the “moribund” anti-abortion movement.

Obama could have easily ignored the protest and used his appearance to address any number of issues of greater concern to Notre Dame students and the country as a whole. Or, if he felt that the question of abortion had to be addressed, he might have taken the opportunity to present an unambiguous defense of every woman’s constitutionally-established right to privacy and her freedom of choice.

Obama approached the issue of abortion as if this legal right should be perpetually subject to negotiation between those who seek to exercise their rights and those who would deny women the protection of the law.

Instead, in what has become this administration’s standard operating procedure, Obama opted for an approach that was as spineless as it was reactionary. The central premise of his speech was that the views of those who would deny citizens their democratic rights are no less deserving of respect than those who seek to secure and defend those rights. He approached the issue of abortion as if this legal right should be perpetually subject to negotiation between those who seek to exercise their rights and those who would deny women the protection of the law.


Dr. Tiller was assassinated on 31 May 2009, at the hands of a semi-deranged man whose mind had been infected with right-wing hate and generalized anti-government paranoia. Many think —with plenty of justification—that the Republican noise machine, Bill O’Reilly, and similar media vermin have some explaining to do. But don’t expect the cowardly Democrats to do anything about this.

Obama’s indifferent attitude toward the defense of democratic rights was not confined to the issue of abortion. In a statement whose reactionary implications grows clearer with each reading, Obama declared: “The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. 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.”

What is Obama’s point? That the general who favors martial law “to protect us from harm” has a view that is as legitimate as that of the lawyer who defends the Bill of Rights? That the views of the evangelical pastor whose hateful sermons encourage anti-gay discrimination are to be seen as a valuable contribution to the national discourse? And, finally, that some sort of common ground should be found between those who oppose stem cell research and those whose children may die because of such reactionary efforts? Why is opposition to stem cell research, rooted in ignorance and hostility to science, being praised by the president as “an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life”?

On the issue of abortion itself, Obama tacitly implied that women who undergo this procedure are engaged in disreputable activity, and that the moral high ground is held by the opponents of abortion. He declared: “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.”

Obama overlooks the fact that no one is compelled by law to undergo abortion. Those who disagree with abortion are not required to avail themselves of the legal right to have one. But why should the president feel obliged to “honor the conscience” of those who would deny this right to those who decide to exercise this right? The so-called “conscience clause” would make it possible for health care workers to deny individuals treatment to which they are legally entitled. Then there is the suggestion that “sound science” may be based on bad ethics. Again, the president is adapting himself to the baseless claims of the religious right, which demands that science be subordinated to their ignorant and reactionary world view. As for Obama’s reference to the “equality of women,” the phrasing makes clear that these words were included only as an afterthought.

There are many other aspects of Obama’s speech that betrayed a callous indifference to democratic principles, including the separation of church and state. Obama’s remarks were far less a political speech than a religious sermon, with numerous invocations of God, a reference to “original sin,” and the retelling of his own discovery of Christ.

Does Obama—whose late mother was an atheist—actually believe any of this? In the Notre Dame rendition of his conversion story, Obama emphasized the influence of the Catholic hierarchy. He did not mention the name of his long-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. When it was politically convenient to do so, Obama gave credit to Wright, the politically-connected black preacher from South Chicago, for his religious consciousness. Obama even used Wright’s phrase, “audacity of hope” in the title of his best-selling book of the same name. But after Wright’s criticisms of US social and military policy became the center of a media campaign during Obama’s battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama dumped Wright and his congregation, where Obama and his family had been parishioners for years.

What was on display at Notre Dame was not Obama’s deep-rooted religious convictions—which, we suspect, are as flexible as all his other convictions—but definite political calculations. The president’s every move is intended to accommodate and cultivate the most reactionary social forces.

Tom Eley is a senior writer with the World Socialist Web Site


B O N U S • F E A T U R E

Arkansas Blog

Dr. George Tiller’s work

Here, from American Prospect, is the article I’ve been looking for in mainstream newspapers about the nature of the work of Dr. George Tiller, targeted for murder because he performed late-term abortions. It includes a link to more stories from women who badly wanted children, but ended pregnancies late in their terms because of grievous abnormalities.

The article quotes Arkansas’s Bill Harrison, the Fayetteville physician who’s been targeted by anti-choice demonstrators because he performs abortions.

Tiller’s death is an incalculable loss to women’s health care. There are two other clinics that do late-term abortions, but neither are known for taking patients regardless of their ability to pay or for ministering so comprehensively to their emotional needs. Tiller’s murder leaves a void that could imperil women across the country.

Late-term abortion is often spoken of as the most morally dubious aspect of the abortion debate. Many people who are nominally pro-choice, particularly politicians, are quick to condemn it, to treat the work that Tiller did as repugnant even if it’s legal.

Ironically, though, many of the procedures Tiller did were as far away from the much-reviled concept of “abortion on demand” as one could get. Unwanted pregnancy can, to some extent, be prevented. A pregnancy that goes horribly wrong cannot. Almost anyone of child-bearing age could end up needing Tiller’s services. And now some of them will be forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will even when their fetuses can’t survive outside the womb.

Bill Harrison, an abortion provider in Arkansas, referred hundreds of patients to Tiller over the years. “To do what George does is like doing major cancer surgery,” he says. “It’s a sub-specialty all its own. It took a real organization to do it safely and effectively and cheaply like he did it.” Over the years, Harrison had 20 or 30 patients who were so poor that he had to give them money for gasoline to get to Wichita. “I would call him and tell him about the patients, and he would say, ‘Send them up,'” he says. “Obviously if they couldn’t pay for gasoline, they couldn’t pay for anything, and he did the abortions anyway.”

Dr. Harrison, who I hope will be writing an article for us about his friendship with Tiller and his reaction to his killing, tells me he’ll be in Wichita this weekend for the funeral. It will be held in the city’s biggest church. Tiller’s home church, where he was slain, can’t accommodate the crowd that wants to attend.

Posted by Max Brantley on June 3, 2009
I hope at the funeral in Wichita there is either a presence of police or some group similar to the Patriot Guard Riders. Bound to be some nutcases lined up along the procession-way.

Posted by: hugh mann  | June 3, 2009 09:16 AM
How much future tragedy, how much future pain, how much future suffering and how many women’s lives lost in the future are attributable to the shrill strident demagogues of the radical religious right, christian conservatives and the unspeakable right-wing radio and television pundits that feed upon fanning their hatred and frustration.
But, as others in their political orbit have plaintively whined before, “It’s not our fault!” Real men and women face up to and take responsibility for the consequences of their acts; iIrresponsible juvenile do not and try to shift the blame to someone, anyone else. Watch what these people say and do.
I am saddened at the thought of women, desperate for a child of their own flesh, who may die because of abnormality in fetuses conceived with in vitro and fertility techniques now. I am saddened at the eradication of a human being and his knowledge and technique to save these womens’ lives by a ignorant, unwashed, unthinking, possibily mentally unstable fanatic and his ignorant, unwashed, unthinking, agitating instigators who do not consider consequences in favor of bleating a simplistic “peanut butter” application of a principle.
Dylan Thomas’ original intent does not go to this question but the final refrain is very pertinent,
“. . . Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. “

Clik for the full poem.

Posted by: docholliday  | June 3, 2009 09:36 AM
These churches should be put on the terrorist watch lists I am much more afraid of them.
They had a great interview on NPR yesterday about a mother who said Dr. Tiller not only saved her life but hus work allowed her to have the two healthy children she has today. Her first pregnancy went terribly wrong late in the pregnancy, baby had horrific growth abnormality and was BRAIN DEAD. The continuation of the pregnancy not only threatened her future reproductive capabilities but also could threaten her life. So she went to Dr. Tiller…
She said because of his miracle work she now is the mother of two beautiful kids. HOW TO YOU GET MORE PRO LIFE THAN THAT!!!!
It makes me want to hate all Christians except Bill Moyers. Jesus is either make believe or incredible lazy… pick one.
Because all I see is acts of hate and violence committed in the name of jesus, mohammed, etc. completely imaginary characters as far as I am concerned. WOuld be like if I went out and killed someone in the name of gilgamesh.
SO sad that people in power manipulate the stupid through criminal oversimplification of a very complicated issue and blatant manipulation using a twisted form of christianity

Posted by: Orval Eugene   | June 3, 2009 09:58 AM
Religions give crazies like Randall Terry an opening and an audience.  For others the local church is a tax deduction.
For some the fable that they will be reassembled from decayed matter and made whole because of their specialized beliefs and for one brief moment in time a magical event will occur and those reassembled will be able to overcome all known laws of physics and somehow go live in an undefined place above the Earth. It’s a nice fairy tale, a piece of magic designed to give relief back when living on Earth could be a tortuous experience and life was indeed short.
But they are really screwing with scientific progress. We don’t need them. They don’t instruct in any life skill we currently need. They don’t help clean up the mess humans are famous for creating nor do they instruct their followers that trashing our home is undesirable. How stupid is that.
They breed and promote incredible violence and ignorance. Not one of them is any better or worse than another. Tax them out of existence. Cancel 501(c)(3) and eliminate the personal property tax exemption for churches.

Posted by: eLwood  | June 3, 2009 10:17 AM
When you read anything about Dr. Tiller by competent publications you encounter a man of extreme compassion, charity and bravery.     If only faux journalists like Bill O’Reilly could be held accountable for the over the top twisting of reality that they practice everyday Tiller might still be alive.

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