WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama spoke at the United States' foremost Roman Catholic University on Sunday, where deep divisions over abortion and stem-cell research have rammed to the forefront in a country fighting two wars and battling a withering economic recession.
A storm broke out immediately after Notre Dame invited Obama to address commencement exercises and he accepted. It still rages, as anti-abortion activists partially disrupted the new president's appearance at the ceremony, where he also received an honorary degree.
Obama addressed the divisive issue head on, acknowledging that many of the views held by both camps are "irreconcilable." He did however, urge people to be reasonable
"When we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do - that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground," he said. "That's when we begin to say, '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.'"
Obama supports abortion rights but says the procedure should be rare. The issue has divided Americans for decades, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that states may not ban abortion.
"I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away," he told the Notre Dame graduates. "No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
Recriminations against Obama's appearance in South Bend, Indiana, are zinging across the Internet, on cable television and the editorial space of newspapers.
The Catholic church and many other Christian denominations hold that abortion or the use of embryos for stem cell research amounts to the destruction of human life, is morally wrong and should be banned by law.
Protesters outside the speech included Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff known as "Roe" in the landmark case. She now opposes abortion rights. At least 27 people were arrested on trespassing charges when the protests spilled over to university property.
Those who support abortion rights hold that women have the right to terminate any pregnancy and that unused embryos created outside the womb for couples who cannot otherwise conceive should be available for stem cell research, which holds the promise of finding treatments for some of mankind's most debilitating ailments.
Within weeks of taking office, Obama eased a Bush administration executive order that limited such research to a small number of stem-cell strains that existed when the former president issued the directive.
Obama's appearance at Notre Dame would appear to be complicated significantly by new polls that show Americans' attitudes on the explosive issue have shifted dramatically toward the anti-abortion position.
A Gallup survey released Friday found that 51 percent of Americans are anti-abortion and 42 percent support abortion rights. This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as anti-abortion since Gallup began asking the question in 1995.
It's a dramatic shift from just a year ago when Gallup found that 50 percent supported abortion rights while 44 percent were anti-abortion.
A Pew Research Center survey found a similar, if less dramatic, shift, with public opinion about abortion more closely divided than it has been in several years.
Pew said its latest polling found that 46 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in most (28 percent) or all cases (18 percent). Forty-four percent of those surveyed were opposed to abortion in most (28 percent) or all cases (16 percent).
Gallup said shifting opinions on the divisive issue lay almost entirely with Republicans or independents who lean Republican, with opposition among those groups rising over the past year from 60 percent to 70 percent. "There has been essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners,'' the Gallup organization said.
The abortion issue, meanwhile, also is front and center as Obama vets potential nominees to fill the vacancy left by the retirement this summer of Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Abortion opponents are determined to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but only four court justices out of nine have backed that position. Souter has opposed arguments for overturning the key ruling.
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, has not joined the fiery debate that erupted after Obama's invitation, but it has produced extraordinary blow back among some students, faculty, alumni and at least 70 Catholic bishops. A leading Catholic scholar, citing the Obama invitation and honorary degree, declined the school's most prestigious award, making this year's commencement the first time that the Laetare Medal hasn't been awarded since 1883.
"It is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation,'' Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said shortly after the university announced Obama's appearance.
Friends and colleagues say Jenkins has listened to the criticism but is confident in his decision.
"He respects people who differ, but he's resolute in his decision because he did it based on conscience and what he really believes in,'' said Richard Notebaert, chairman of Notre Dame's board of trustees.
Notebaert said Jenkins, who is in the fourth year of a five-year term, has the "full support'' of the trustees.
That hasn't soothed critics, who question whether Notre Dame has lost touch with its Catholic roots. Calls for Jenkins' ouster have grown louder amid protests by abortion opponents.