US President Barack Obama has addressed a congregation of students, academics and their families at Notre Dame, a leading Catholic university in Indiana, on issues that are currently, and have been for some time, dividing public opinion in the United States.
His speech centred around what he termed 'irreconcilable' views on abortion. The President advocated mutual respect for other people's moral beliefs in a bid to engage in unity through finding a common goal. His arrival was greeting by pro-life protests who oppose the President's more liberal approach to abortion and he was even heckled at one point during the speech, to which he responded: 'We don't do things the easy way'. The President received an honorary degree from the university, which he accepted was given 'not without controversy.' Demonstrators are reported to have paraded outside, distributed graphic pictures of aborted fetuses and even flew an anti-abortion banner from an aircraft overhead.
Much of what Obama said on abortion is equally applicable to stem cell research in that the issue generates polarised moral arguments, but the task of government is to implement a mutually respectful policy based upon common ground. He referred to the analogy of the solider and the lawyer, who both seek different ways to protect a country and the gay activist and the pastor, who both deplore HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)/AIDS(acquired immune deficiency syndrome) but need to work together and unite their efforts. Obama also referred to those against embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research whose views are 'rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life'. These people share the same source of their conviction as 'the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved', he said.
As with the debate over abortion, Obama says these issues reveal apparently irreconcilable views but the question is how we work through these conflicts without 'demonising' those with equally strong convictions on the other side. The President warned against reducing those with differing views to 'caricature', instead advocating the need to listen properly to all sides of the debate for its equal worth.
The President has recently reversed former President Bush's policy on restricting federal funding for ES cell research. The National Institutes of Health have introduced new guidelines that permit federal funds for embryos 'left over' from IVF along with more stringent consent requirements in what appears to be a compromise position on the issue, arguably neither satisfying proponents or opponents of ES cell research. Ironically, supporters have pointed out that the new guidelines may in fact be more restrictive than otherwise thought, with the consent requirements making many of the 21 cell lines that were eligible for funding under Bush out of bounds.