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A short time ago, President Barack Obama was invited to address the 2009 graduating class of Notre Dame and to be honored by the university. President Obama is an effective speaker; and his speech at Notre Dame was eloquently delivered.

But Notre Dame is a Catholic University and the Catholic Church and hierarchy, and Catholics in large numbers, believe that abortion is killing an innocent fetus and a seriously sinful violation of the child’s right to life. President Obama, however, believes just as strongly that the mother has the right to kill the child in her womb. Notre Dame alumni accused their Alma Mater of playing politics. There was tension and considerable hostility and anger around the campus that graduation day, and the hostility is still spreading.

Seeking some road to harmony among the hostile parties, President Obama encouraged both sides”proabortion and antiabortion”to seek and find, notwithstanding their opposing views, a “common ground.” This is not the first time that he has made such an appeal.

In the nineteenth century it was the right of freedom versus the right to enslave; in the twentieth century it is the right to life versus the right to kill the innocent. And much as people would hope to find common ground, there is no common ground to be found. The right to life is not granted by kings, rulers, clergymen, parliaments, or congresses. It is the Creator’s work, not to be fudged.

In disputes over civil laws”the best housing policy, the best health policy, the wisest tax laws”it is reasonable to hope for common ground. But in some matters there is no common ground. The president encouraged his audience to “increase adoptions” and to “reduce the number of abortions.” Friends of mine have suggested the same, and it is all to the good. But abortion always kills an infant. I can readily imagine President Lincoln hearing from the slave owners: “We will decrease the number of slaves,” and “We will increase social services.” But he also knew that one slave is still a slave. And one fetus killed is still killing an innocent life.

For some time now I, probably like most of my fellow countrymen, have heard Republicans and Democrats, friends and strangers, family, coworkers and coreligionists argue their views on abortion. Those who uphold a person’s right to abort the fetus generally argue for a woman’s “right to choose.” Those who condemn abortion argue that no one has a right to kill an innocent child.

The founders of our great nation justified what they did in their Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” They then asked God to witness their declaration and confirm it by his providence and protection.

But from the beginning the founders were split down the middle on the meaning and extent of “inalienable rights.” Not everyone, some said, possesses the “inalienable right” to liberty. Others soundly disagreed saying: “It is a universal right of all people.”

Asked his view on the matter of slavery, John C. Calhoun stated: “I hold that, in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin and distinguished by color and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding states between the two is, instead of an evil, a good”a positive good. I hold that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is truly born out by history.”

But John Quincy Adams, when asked his view on slavery, flatly said it is “a great plague . . . and is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and fears for the future.” Asked further if southerners realized that state of affairs Adams said: “Yes, at the bottom of their hearts. But it is a truth that they will not admit although they are clearly preoccupied with it.”

Then came the Civil War, and after the war came over a hundred years of postwar hatred and anger and healing. And now it appears we are divided again, over the inalienable right, this time, to life itself. One may readily today thus paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s 1854 statement, “If A can prove, however conclusively, that he may of right kill B, why may not one who loves B snatch the same argument and prove equally that he may kill A?”

It is not faith that tells us that abortion kills an innocent life. It is science. And the more we know about it the more the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” is recognized as simply a euphemism for “a woman’s right to kill the child in her womb.”

When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence they knew full well that they were founding their work on the law of the Creator. Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and scholars of that entire era, were grounded in natural law theory. They knew and accepted the rule of law. They knew that with rights came responsibilities and obligations; that when they appealed to God they were addressing the divine lawmaker; when they asked him to confirm and protect their work they were accepting responsibility to cooperate with his providence and were committing future generations to the same responsibility and trust.

That is why John Adams and Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery. It violated the ground on which the union was built”that “all men are created equal.”

And that is why the legal killing of infants in their mother’s womb is so abhorrent to so many of the present generation of Americans. Every infant is God’s child, and his gift to us as a sister and brother. And just as President Obama has so praiseworthily pledged himself to guarantee every child the right to an education, so should he first, and with far greater righteousness, pledge himself to guarantee every child, as far as humanly possible, the right to life.

The president says: “We must find a way to live together.” All the while, the infant in the womb is answering: “But first I have to live.”

Fr. Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J., the former president and current chancellor of Gonzaga University in Spokane.

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