Facing protests and controversy, President Barack Obama pressed for a change in tone in the nation’s divisive debate over abortion.
Addressing the issue head-on at the University of Notre Dame, one of the leading Catholic universities, Obama told graduates on Sunday that while the two sides may never agree on the issue, there is some common ground.
"We can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions," Obama told the university’s 2,900 graduates.
Obama called for "open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words" in the public debate over the issue, arguing that there was no reason to reduce the other side to caricatures.
The president’s stance on abortion — he supports abortion rights but says the procedure should be rare — sparked outrage among Catholics when Notre Dame invited him to deliver the commencement speech and receive an honorary degree. The Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations believe that abortion and the use of embryos for stem-cell research amount to the destruction of human life, are morally wrong and should be banned.
At the university police said 37 people were arrested Sunday on trespassing charges while protesting Obama’s speech. Two others face both trespassing and resisting arrest charges.
Among those arrested was Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff identified as "Roe" in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. She now opposes abortion and joined more than 300 anti-abortion demonstrators at the university’s front gate.
Obama entered the graduation ceremony to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from many in the crowd of 12,000. But as the president began his commencement address, at least three protesters interrupted his speech. One yelled, "Stop killing our children."
The president ceded no ground on the abortion issue, but asked those on both sides of the debate to "work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term."
The abortion issue is again at the forefront as Obama considers potential nominees to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the retirement of 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 ruling.
Before returning to Washington, the president stopped in Indianapolis for two fundraisers. About 40 people attended a $15,000 per couple Democratic National Committee event, which raised between $300,000 and $400,000.
About 650 people attended a second fundraiser for four Indiana Democratic congressmen. Tickets ranged between $250 and $5,000 per person.
Indiana is a traditionally Republican-leaning state that Obama carried in the presidential election.
Associated Press writers Tom Coyne in South Bend and Steven R. Hurst in Washington contributed to this report.