Politics & Policy

In Defense of Karen Hughes

Terrorism and the sanctity of life.

Having spent the weekend enjoying the restrained and civil rhetoric on offer at the pro-abortion march, a number of liberals are upset that Karen Hughes has violated decorum. Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, says that Hughes “compared the 9/11 terrorists to Americans who marched on the Mall,” and that this comparison is “outrageous.” Jon Stewart has beaten her up for the remarks, and Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood has demanded an apology since proponents of legal abortion are “Americans…and patriots, too.”

The controversial remarks were uttered during an interview with Wolf Blitzer of CNN. Blitzer asked her about abortion and the election. She said,

Well, Wolf, it’s always an issue. And I frankly (sic) think it’s changing somewhat. I think after September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life. And President Bush has worked to say, let’s be reasonable, let’s work to value life, let’s try to reduce the number of abortions, let’s increase adoptions. And I think those are the kind of policies that the American people can support, particularly at a time when we’re facing an enemy, and really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life. It’s the founding conviction of our country, that we’re endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately our enemies in the terror network, as we’re seeing repeatedly in the headlines these days, don’t value any life, not even the innocent and not even their own.

Blitzer then moved on to Iraq.

Hughes’s critics are going to be even more upset when they notice that President Bush has said pretty much the same things. Just four months after September 11, Bush proclaimed a Sanctity of Life Day. In his proclamation, he said that “[u]nborn children should be welcomed in life and protected in law.” He then immediately moved to terrorism:

On September 11, we saw clearly that evil exists in this world, and that it does not value life. The terrible events of that fateful day have given us, as a Nation, a greater understanding about the value and wonder of life. Every innocent life taken that day was the most important person on earth to somebody; and every death extinguished a world. Now we are engaged in a fight against evil and tyranny to preserve and protect life. In so doing, we are standing again for those core principles upon which our Nation was founded.

Remarkably, Bush’s comments did not attract much attention. But if Hughes should apologize, so should he.

I don’t think an apology is due from either one of them. Hughes denies that she was comparing supporters of legal abortion to terrorists. The most that can fairly be said is that by implication she was likening abortionists to terrorists, and supporters of abortion to supporters of terrorism. But the comparison is an extremely limited one: At most, she was saying that abortionists are like terrorists in that both groups violate the right to life and that supporters of abortion are like supporters of terrorism in that both fail to respect the right to life. In no way is she saying that abortion is just like terrorism, or that abortionists are as evil as terrorists, or that support for abortion is as inexcusable as support for terrorism. (What she was mainly doing, I assume, is trying to find a way to switch the topic from abortion to the war.) Indeed, her implicit argument assumes that supporters of abortion can be moved to value human life in a way that supporters of terrorism, presumably, cannot.

And what she was saying–that abortion, like terrorism, violates the right to life–is true. (A better comparison would be to ordinary homicide.) It is not a rhetorical note that I think pro-lifers should sound often; I don’t think it advances the cause. But why are the critics surprised that a pro-lifer should say it? They know that the administration’s position is that abortion violates a right to life. That it is comparable to terrorism in this respect follows inescapably from that premise.

Hard words get said in politics. At last weekend’s march, politicians suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that pro-lifers are enemies of the Constitution, haters of women, slave drivers, people without consciences, and opponents of civil rights.

More to the point: Since September 11, our influential magazines and elite newspapers have often run with some version of the argument that our enemies in the war on terror are “fundamentalists.” Just like Christian fundamentalists, the Islamist fundamentalists dislike abortion, homosexuality, and the separation of church and state. Nobody seems to consider this line of argument disreputable. It has been expressed countless times. As far as I know, Hughes’s interview was exactly the second time anyone has made the pro-life point she did. It’s okay to bring the war on terrorism into our domestic culture wars, as long as it’s to help the left side of them.

But we’re not at war with Islamists because they are social conservatives. We are at war with them because they commit homicide, as abortionists also do. Hughes and Bush should probably not have said what they said, because such comments could undermine both the campaign against abortion and the war on terrorism. But what they said was true, and I hope they stand up to the pressure.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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