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Martha Burk

Martha Burk

Posted: May 17, 2009 05:42 PM

Weak on Women's Rights at Notre Dame


A few minutes before President Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame, the CNN anchor was intoning that he supports stem cell research and he supports abortion rights, and that he would not shrink from his positions on either. In fact, she said, he was going to use an email he had gotten on the subject of abortion as part of his remarks.

Good, I thought. It will be from the parent of the mentally retarded high school student who was gang raped, the doctor of an 11 year old incest victim, or possibly a woman with four kids already whose husband has just lost his job and medical benefits along with it.

Boy, was I wrong.

The letter Obama cited in great detail was from an anti-choice doctor who had taken him to task for a statement on his campaign website saying he would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The president was quick to point out that while he had not changed his fundamental position (though he declined to reiterate it), he had instructed his staff to alter the wording, presumably so that "ideologue" no longer appeared.

The rest of the speech, insofar as a woman's most fundamental right to control her own body was concerned, was a big fat silence. Leading off with "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions," the president detailed all the ways we can reduce abortions. He mentioned adoption, support for women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term, and crafting a "sensible conscience clause" (whatever that means) for health care providers as well as "health care policies grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."

Coming from a pro-choice president who was elected by women - including a significant number of defectors from their rabidly anti-choice Republican party - it was faint support indeed. Instead of merely asking us to agree that abortion is a heart-wrenching decision (we all do anyway), why not ask us to agree on the fundamental moral agency of women? Why not ask us to agree that government should not interfere in a woman's most basic right to autonomy in controlling her life? If he wants to follow that with a statement about reducing the need for abortion, I'll be with him all the way.

But the president didn't do that. After brushing quickly by respect for the equality of women (and only in the health care context), he went on to extend an invitation to the anti-choice audience to engage in dialogue, where "differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love." That all sounds great, but if the president buys the idea that those who would outlaw abortion and send women back to the back alleys are not ideologues, and that they want to co-exist in civil disagreement, he's naive at the very best. And he diminishes women in the bargain.

Make no mistake. I support President Obama. I think for the most part he's doing a great job. I know he's pro-choice. But I need to know he is not afraid to say unequivocally that he supports the fundamental rights of his daughters and my granddaughters as strongly as he supports so-called open dialogue and debate. He needs to say it out loud, with conviction and without apology.

If they hear that, the women of the world will stand and applaud much longer and much harder than any crowd at Notre Dame.