, SOUTH BEND, May 18 – President Barack Obama sought "common ground" over the divisive abortion debate in a controversial speech at one of the top Catholic universities in the United States.
A few hundred activists lined the streets leading to the school’s entrance holding signs with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses. They denounced Obama’s support for abortion rights and his being invited to deliver the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.
Referring to those who support the legal right to abortion and those who oppose it, as Catholic teaching does, the president acknowledged that "at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable."
But Americans must find a way to "remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonising those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side," Obama stressed.
"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 told graduates.
Obama has angered the anti-abortion movement by reversing predecessor George W. Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and for family-planning groups that carry out or facilitate abortions overseas.
Notre Dame faced widespread condemnation from the pro-life movement, including prominent Catholic leaders, for its decision to honor a president whom they say does not support the sanctity of life, a central church teaching.
There was little common ground to be found among protesters outside the campus gates.
"This nation’s got blood on its hands and we’re going to pay the price for it," said David McWilliams, 51, who drove 100 miles (160 kilometers) to stand with a pair of red gloves and a t-shirt bearing the words "Mr. Obama tear down this law: Roe v. Wade," referring to the landmark 1973 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that banning abortion was unconstitutional.
An airplane pulling a banner with a graphic photo of an aborted fetus flew circles over South Bend as protesters sang "Amazing Grace" to drown out a handful of counter-protesters chanting: "Not the church. Not the state. We will decide our fate."
"There are millions of women whose right to abortion is being compromised by these Christian fascists," said Sunsara Taylor of the Supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
Inside the arena, Obama was welcomed with loud cheers and applause and the flash of cameras and the audience of 12,000 gave him a standing ovation when he took the podium.
Several students waved caps showing Obama logos while others wore caps with the pro-life symbol of a yellow cross and baby feet.
Obama reassured the crowd that "we’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes" when his speech was briefly interrupted four times by men shouting "stop killing babies" and "abortion is murder."
All four men were quickly escorted from the arena by police and the crowd drowned them out with boos, and chants of Obama’s campaign slogan "Yes we can" and the school slogan "We are ND."
Local media reported the arrests of at least 36 other protesters, but the campus appeared largely free of disturbances as well-dressed families held picnics ahead of the ceremony.
The controversy erupted as Obama prepares to name his first nominee to the Supreme Court, a pick sure to be excoriated by some in the Republican Party if he or she is viewed as too liberal on the abortion question.
The president has attempted to defuse one of the most emotive issues in US public life by arguing that while abortion should remain legal, the government should do all it can to limit unwanted pregnancies.
In introducing Obama, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins faced head on the controversy that mushroomed ahead of Obama’s visit.
"President Obama has come to Notre Dame knowing full well that we are fully supportive of the church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research," Jenkins said to applause.
"Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But (Obama) is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him."
Priests for Life director Frank Pavone, who lead an alternative service for Notre Dame graduates boycotting Obama, said the university and the president were "trivializing abortion."
He highlighted a new Gallup poll that said for the first time since the organization began surveying the question in 1995, most Americans identify themselves as "pro-life" rather than "pro-choice."
In the poll released Friday, 51 percent of respondents said they were opposed to abortion while 42 percent said they supported a woman’s right to choose.
However, just 28 percent of Catholics surveyed in a recent Pew Center poll thought Notre Dame was wrong to invite Obama, while half said it was the right thing to do.