President Obama's Notre Dame speech-a plea for reconciliation, and a request that both sides in the abortion debate respect each other and work to limit abortions-was noteworthy for what it didn't contain: a defense of the basic right to abortion, a rationale for why it should remain legal and readily available for women who feel they need it, and a case for why a woman's right to choose an abortion should trump a fetus' right to life. Instead, Obama played defense, ceding the moral high ground to those who want to limit abortion by acknowledging that it should be used sparingly as though there was something wrong with or to be ashamed of, this widely practiced medical procedure.
For a president who sees himself as a game-changer in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, on this issue and perhaps others, his influence is likely to pale in comparison unless he is willing to engage the American public in a full-throated argument as to why abortion should remain legal and continue to be a necessary and even welcome procedure to safeguard the lives and emotional well-being of American woman.
On a whole host of issues, from Social Security to the general concept of a social safety net, FDR altered the rules of American politics for a generation by making a clear and unequivocal case for his policies. Similarly, on the issue of abortion, President Reagan was a game-changer both in the way he forced the Republican party to adopt his anti-abortion position as its own by, over time, changing the way the American public viewed the procedure. While many Republicans have paid lip service to the pro-life cause, as Obama has with pro-choicers, Reagan did more than merely state his position, but offered a rationale, in the face of what was then strong public opposition, as to why abortion should be outlawed, using language that even children could understand-children who are now all grown up and today tell pollsters they are opposed to abortion in increasing numbers.
"...When we talk about abortion, we are talking about two lives--the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child," Reagan once wrote. "Why else do we call a pregnant woman a mother? ...Anyone who doesn't feel sure whether we are talking about a second human life should clearly give life the benefit of the doubt. If you don't know whether a body is alive or dead, you would never bury it. I think this consideration itself should be enough for all of us to insist on protecting the unborn."
Reagan was the pro-choice community's worst enemy and in every way possible sought to undermine it, going so far as to publish a book, "Abortion & The Conscience of The Nation," while still President and on occasion even resorted to proselytizing individual citizen in his attempts to get them to rethink the practice.
"Called a woman in Peoria, Illinois who had wired after the State of the Union. Her complaint was over freedom of choice," Reagan once noted in his diary at the end of a long day as President. "She was referring to abortion and she called herself an ex-Republican who wouldn't vote for me. I was going to write her & then just on a hunch I phoned. It took a little doing to convince her it was really me. We had a nice talk and I was right that her problem was abortion. I made my pitch that there were two people's rights involved in abortion - the mother's and the unborn child. She promised to give that some deep thought. We had a nice visit. She's a 51-year old divorcee working for less than $10,000 a year - has a 17 year old son ready for college and a married daughter. I think I made a friend."
In 1980, public support for abortion stood at an all time high of 68%, but 30 years after Reagan began his public crusade against it, his views have become the majority opinion of the land according to a recent Gallup poll which showed that for the first time in history pro-lifers outnumber pro-choicers by a margin of 51-42.
As President Reagan did in 1980, President Obama today faces a majority of Americans who disagree with him on the issue of abortion, and if he truly wants to be a transformative president, bending the will of the people to his strongly held view that either the fetus has no rights to legal protection or that they are trumped by the rights of a grown woman, he must do more than offer a defensive crouch on the issue and stop acting as though he is ashamed of the procedure, but instead clearly spell out for the American people the philosophical rationale for his view and work hard to persuade Americans as to why he is right and a majority of them are wrong. Only then will he leave the kind of enduring legacy that a very select group of transformative presidents have left behind.