Returning to Obama's speech at Notre Dame, I wanted to address the question a bit more deeply of what it means to speak of "common ground" on the subject.
Anonymous in comments has been raising some very good questions about the implications of, and the sincerity of, Obama's claim of seeking common ground, some of which you can read in comments. Let me just quote a bit of one of my responses, and then follow up with some detailed replies to Anonymous's counter-response.
Put it this way: Would it matter that abortion was legal if we were successful in ensuring that no unintended pregnancies took place? I'd submit it wouldn't. The issue would be moot. To rather than argue about the legality, about which we don't agree, let's strive to reduce unwanted pregnancies, about which we do That's common ground.
Anonymous replies at length, and I'm going to intersperse his reply and my responses to his points below. In invite responses from anyone else who cares to chime in on the issue as well:
Well, there's nothing like starting a conversation by implying your opponent may be monstrous. But apparently I'm not since I start from a different set of premises than Anonymous does. *Phew!* Dodged that bullet!
But let's examine the substance of the claim: Anonymous seems to be saying that, if I were to acknowledge the fetus as entitled to full human rights "at conception" (whatever that means), then any position which allowed for elective abortions would be monstrous. But this doesn't follow. Consider the classic "Violinist" case, elaborated by Judith Jarvis Thompson. In this case, I wake up one morning to find that I have been attached involuntarily to a life support system, and as a result I am the only thing standing between death and a famous violinist. Am I, as a result of having been attached to this life-support system, morally obligated to remain attached to it?
Jarvis Thompson acknowledges that both I and the violinist are in possession of the full complement of basic human rights. But I did not consent to be attached to the machine, and would not have consented had I been given the choice. My attachment to the machine is a matter of luck (good or bad) and happenstance. What are my moral obligations?
Jarvis Thompson argues that I cannot be morally obligated to remain attached to the life support machine.
Jarvis acknowledges, as I do, that there may be cases where you could potentially make the case that abortion would be a violation of rights in some cases, but her point, and mine right now, is that even if we grant that a fetus, like the violinist, is fully vested with human rights, there is no necessary obligation to refrain from abortion. The rights of the fetus cannot be bought at the expense of the rights of the mother. And the mother cannot be obligated to give up her rights, even if we might think her callous to insist upon them.
But your response here has everything to do with the legal default position that you enjoy. A number of abortive procedures are currently legal in the U.S.-- Does this mean that in a hypothetical situation where all abortion was illegal, you would still say, "I don't believe that fetuses bear human rights at all stages, therefore we don't have any common ground here, therefore we should work on things where there's agreement?"
I would certainly continue to say that. But I would also, to one degree or another, strive to change the mind of my opponents, and, where possible to change the law. But, more to the point, the situations are not actually parallel from my perspective, precisely because I do think a woman is vested with human rights. I think the woman's position as a bearer of rights is unambiguous, whereas, at best, the rights of the fetus are ambiguous. And so, yes, I would, in such a situation, prefer to recognize and protect rights that are unambiguously acknowledged over against rights that remain ambiguous.
But again, in the mean time, nothing would prevent me from working on whatever common ground issues were raised by the situation (it might be interesting to contemplate what that might be, but certainly stopping unwanted pregnancies would remain an issue). The situation in that sence would remain parallel to the present situation, and again, my hypothetical question would remain: If unwanted pregnancies were reduced to zero, the question of elective abortions would be rendered moot (however, issues of when an abortion would be medically necessary or desirable would still remain).
Back to Anonymous:
No, I would expect those who disagree with me to continue engaging in a discourse designed to facilitate open communication, in which the possibility of changing my mind always exists. Frankly, I have never encountered an argument that "life" (whatever that means) begins at "conception" (whatever that means) that is not, at its core, question begging. But I leave open the possibility that someone may come across with one that I will find convincing. If the attitude of someone on the other side is "common ground be damned," then I don't see how they could reasonably expect to convince me of their good will. I would expect that they're much more interested in coercing me.
I disagree that the actions were taken with regard for whether there was "common ground." They were undertaken consistent with his frequently reiterated campaign pledges, for which he recieved a significant majority of the vote. And, at the same time, he recognized the legitimate concerns of those who differ from him on the issue:
It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.
But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans - from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs - have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.
That is a conclusion with which I agree. That is why I am signing this Executive Order, and why I hope Congress will act on a bi-partisan basis to provide further support for this research. We are joined today by many leaders who have reached across the aisle to champion this cause, and I commend them for that work.
Ultimately, I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No President can promise that. But I can promise that we will seek them - actively, responsibly, and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground. Not just by opening up this new frontier of research today, but by supporting promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.
I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.
There are of course other paths of stem cell research that may also prove fruitful, but recognizing that doesn't require that we abandon the potentially fruitful advances made in ESC research.
Who says I don't recognize that fundamental moral battles are being fought here. Just because I draw the battle lines in a different location doesn't mean I don't recognize the issues at stake. Again, nothing like a bit of strawman to temper an otherwise reasonable argument.
Back to Anonymous:
Again, I don't know why this seems to be unclear: No one is asking anyone else to stop advocating for what they deem to be the right thing. The point is to work on the things we do agree on in the midst of our deeply felt disagreements, not to stop working on changing hearts, minds, and laws. The question is, in the mean time, what are you going to do? Society is constructed and functions on the basis of our agreements, and despite our disagreements. When we turn our focus exclusively to our disagreements, then society grinds to a halt.
At a certain point, there is always going to be someone who is willing to move the goal posts farther down the field. You make policy on the basis of what you think is the right thing to do. If you convince enough people, you get elected -- or reelected. If you overstep, you lose the next election. Policy isn't about making everyone happy all the time. And what Obama demonstrates that many of his opponenets don't is a willingness to listen to and take seriously other points of view. Obama is more likely, based on his recent record, to make allowances for "abstinance only" and extra-governmental social services in his policies than his opponenets seem to be to move toward him. Who in this situation is engaging in a good faith argument and who isn't? you seem to be turning your fire to Obama. I'd focus more on his opponents.
Well, one way to examine this is to look at what policies actually work. If your commitment is to reducing abortions, what policies have actually be successful at doing so? This is an empirical matter, not an ideological one: Where there is comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, emphasis on women's sexual health, and a robust system of social services, abortions decline. Where there is not, abortions don't decline. Do a state-by-state comparison of abortion rates, and you'll note that where those structures exist, there are fewer abortions. Where the emphasis is on abstinance only, and where social services are lousy, there are an increased number of unwanted pregnancies, and a concomitant increase in abortions.