I didn't see this one coming. K. and I had been talking about her sex life. We had arranged to meet before a sexual abstinence event at a church in Michigan. I was there interviewing young people for a book project on evangelical abstinence campaigns, and K. travels the country with an organization that promotes waiting for sex until marriage. K. is an attractive, gregarious young woman in her early 20s, but her easy laugh belied her deeper pain.

I had asked her about her previous dating relationships and what led her to commit to abstinence. What began as a tale of sexual escapades quickly devolved into a heartbreaking story of abortion. As can often be the case in the complex tangle of life, she wanted the baby, but at the same time she didn't. Her much-older boyfriend had left the cash for the procedure on the dresser. She bled for quite a bit afterward, and through her tears told me that she had found a fragment that looked like a small hand on the floor of her bathroom. It had happened a few years ago, but the pain was still fresh. She had been eleven weeks pregnant at the time. My eyes filled with tears, threatening to shatter my objective researcher posture, as I tried to nonchalantly continue taking notes. I instinctively touched my belly - I was eleven weeks pregnant myself.

Stories like K.'s often get lost in the vitriolic rhetoric surrounding abortion. President Obama's abortion rhetoric in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame yesterday is a small step in the right direction. "How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?" Obama asked the graduates. But what about individuals like K. who are implicated by the rhetoric without holding strong convictions of their own?

President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame has sparked controversy and protests in recent weeks, but not as much as one might expect from an ostensibly pro-life Catholic institution. A recent poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that Catholics are little different from the rest of the population: For both groups, about half had not even heard of the Notre Dame controversy. Perhaps a sign of battle fatigue in the decades-old culture wars?

To his credit, Obama did not shy away from the controversy. He admirably sought common ground where he could find it: "So let's 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. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women." He acknowledged that although the pro-life and pro-choice views may be "irreconcilable," he called on both sides to avoid "reducing those with differing views to caricature." His mantra: "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words."

Despite such fair-minded words, Obama has quietly but swiftly enacted a pro-choice agenda, including lifting the ban on federal funding for international organizations that offer or promote abortions as well as lifting limits on embryonic stem-cell research. He may advocate for civil engagement, but generally he has tried to stay above the fray. During his campaign, he infamously dodged a question about abortion by responding that it was "above my pay grade."

The new administration is leaning left, but the American public may now be leaning right. A new Gallup Poll released last Friday reveals shifting attitudes on abortion: For the first time in nearly 15 years, a majority of Americans self-identify as pro-life (51 percent) instead of pro-choice (42 percent). Just a year ago, the numbers were flipped, with 50 percent pro-choice and 44 percent pro-life. The poll may show that Republicans and other political conservatives and moderates are responsible for the shift. Lydia Saad, in an article on the Gallup website, suggests that the Obama administration has " … pushed the public's understanding of what it means to be "pro-choice" slightly to the left, politically." In this case, actions speak louder than words, fair-minded or not.

Honest dialogue and disagreement over deeply held issues like abortion would be a welcome move toward a kinder, gentler culture war. The orator-in-chief has the megaphone to make it happen. But in the case of young women like K., perhaps what we need is fewer words and more tears.