U.S. President Barack Obama has delivered the commencement address to graduates of one of America's leading Roman Catholic universities, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His visit and acceptance of an honorary degree angered religious protesters, who strongly disagree with Mr. Obama's support of abortion rights and stem cell research.
With several hundred anti-abortion protesters gathered outside Notre Dame's front gates, President Obama was greeted inside the Joyce Center on campus with long and thunderous applause. But his speech was interrupted a number of times by anti-abortion hecklers, with most graduating students drowning out the hecklers in support of Mr. Obama.
The president began his remarks by acknowleging the storm of controversy his visit caused with a dose of self-deprecating humor.
"I want to thank you for this honorary degree," said President Obama. "I know it has not been without controversy. I don't know if you're aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. So far I'm only 1 for 2 as President."
Mr. Obama delivered his first commencement address as president to the University of Arizona several days ago. The university decided not to award him an honorary degree, saying his body of work is "not yet finished."
At Notre Dame Sunday, President Obama took on the issue that has dogged his visit and sharply divided and polarized Americans for decades - abortion. He called for people on both sides of the debate to keep an open mind and to stop demonizing each other.
"Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions," said Mr. Obama.
The president focused on action that both sides can agree on.
"So let's work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions," he said. "Let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their child to term."
In his speech, the president indicated he may be willing to cede some ground in the ongoing political battle over abortion, calling for a "sensible conscience clause" to be included in any potential new freedom of choice legislation, so that doctors and nurses who oppose abortions cannot be forced to perform them.
Students who oppose abortion rights held an all-night prayer vigil on another part of the campus.
University policy kept non-student protesters outside the campus' gates. Conservative political activist Alan Keyes explained his view of why many Catholics and other Christians were so upset by Notre Dame's decision to invite and honor Mr. Obama .
"Barack Obama is deeply committed to what [former Pope] John Paul [II]called the 'culture of death' and the murder of innocent children," said Alan Keyes.
The abortion issue is likely to remain in the spotlight as President Obama seeks to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the retirement this summer of Justice David Souter. In its 1973 "Roe versus Wade" decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individual states may not ban abortion, but it did not end the political battle over the issue.