WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ventures to America's foremost Roman Catholic university today, where the country's deep divisions over abortion and stem-cell research have moved to the forefront in a time of war and recession.
A storm blew up immediately after the University of Notre Dame invited Obama to address today's commencement exercises. It still rages, with antiabortion activists promising to disrupt the president's appearance at South Bend, Ind., where he was also to receive an honorary degree.
Students opposed to abortion rights attended an open-air Mass on campus and an all-night prayer vigil to protest Obama's visit, and 200 people prayed at a packed Alumni Hall Chapel. More than 100 people met at the school's front gate and held antiabortion signs while Obama flew from Washington to Indiana.
More than 100 protesters gathered and 23 marched onto the campus Saturday. Police say they arrested 19 for trespassing and four were also charged with resisting law enforcement.
In Washington on Sunday, the head of the Republican Party said Obama should be denied the honorary degree.
Obama supports abortion rights but says the procedure should be rare. The Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations hold that abortion and the use of embryos for stem cell research amount to the destruction of human life and are morally wrong and should be banned by law.
The contrary argument holds that women have the right to terminate a pregnancy and that unused embryos created outside the womb for couples who cannot otherwise conceive should be available for stem cell research. Such research holds the promise of finding treatments for debilitating ailments.
Within weeks of taking office in January, Obama eased an executive order by President George W. Bush that limited research to a small number of stem-cell strains.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday that Obama in his commencement speech would mention the debate over abortion while emphasizing that "this is exactly the kind of give and take" that occurs on college campuses everywhere.
Obama's appearance at Notre Dame would appear to be complicated by new polls that show Americans' attitudes on the issue have shifted toward the anti-abortion position.
A Gallup survey released Friday found that 51 percent of those questioned call themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42 percent "pro-choice." This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as "pro-life" since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.
Just a year ago, Gallup found that 50 percent termed themselves "pro-choice" while 44 percent described their beliefs as "pro-life."
A Pew Research Center survey found public opinion about abortion more closely divided than it has been in several years.
Pew said its latest polling found that 28 percent said abortion should be legal in most cases while 18 percent said all cases. Forty-four percent of those surveyed were opposed to abortion in most or all cases.
Gallup said shifting opinions 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.
The abortion issue also is front and center as Obama considers potential nominees to fill the vacancy left by the retirement this summer of Justice David Souter. Abortion opponents are determined to see Roe vs. Wade overturned, but only four court justices out of nine have backed that position. Souter has opposed arguments for overturning the ruling.
Republicans, meanwhile, see an opening for political gain.
"Those institutions don't hand those degrees out that readily. So it is a very strong sticking point, and I think a lot of Catholics and a lot of pro-life Americans are very concerned about that, and I think it is inappropriate," Republican National Committee chief Michael Steele told NBC's Meet the Press.
"The president should speak, but the degree should not be conferred," Steele said.
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, has not joined the debate that erupted after Obama's invitation. 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, who have paraded dolls smeared in fake blood outside a recent trustees' meeting and on Sunday flew an anti-abortion banner over campus.
To be sure, though, there was division on campus.
The Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at Notre Dame who supports Obama's speech, noted that the president's positions put him at odds with Catholic doctrine but added: "There are other positions he has taken, whether it's on immigration or poverty or whatever, which are entirely consistent with Catholic social teaching."
McBrien appeared on Fox News Sunday.