“We know what our Lord thinks about wishy-washy, lukewarm people”

By Kim Puchir
Vol. XXII – No. 2 2011

“For the most part in Congress, the name of the game is compromise, but Chris Smith is not one to compromise,” said Jo Blum, former vice president for government relations at the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, now NARAL Prochoice America. The Republican politician has stuck to the same unwaveringly conservative trajectory for the last three decades in the service of his New Jersey constituents and rigid antichoice ideology—not necessarily in that order. In a 2007 speech, Mr. Smith characterized a list of prochoice legislation as the “screaming lack” of morality and came down against “moral relativism.” Though the representative from New Jersey’s 4th district makes no such distinctions when he speaks, there is actually a difference between taking a moral stance on an issue, and cornering the only possible moral stance. Unraveling Smith’s carefully woven fabric of religious references and human rights-like language reveals that, on at least one occasion, the Congressman has been caught wearing no clothes.

Some of the most lasting harm caused by Smith’s antichoice activities stemmed from his instrumental role in blocking funds to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because he said that it “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.” These claims have been debunked by several research teams, but Smith was able to keep the UNFPA associated with wrongdoing in enough legislators’ minds to block funding for fiscal year 2000. Besides the impact upon the provision of reproductive healthcare in some of the poorest countries in the world, the maneuver proved the utility of what the congressman referred to as his “tourniquet strategy” in a speech in Vatican City. “By linking prolife initiatives to ‘must pass’ legislation, or something the Administration thinks it needs, like the UN arrearages, we have restored numerous bans on abortion funding,” he said in 2000, though the tactic is eerily similar to the Republican hijacking of the 2011 budget negotiations.

Smith continues to cling to allegations disproven ten years ago—this February he said in Congress that the unfpa is “an organization that has made the Chinese killing machine more efficacious and lethal”—perhaps seeking to influence another generation of legislators. He has picked up some new strategies along the way, however. The bill he is currently promoting, “The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” or H.R. 3, threatens abortion rights not by going for the jugular— by a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade—but more like death by a thousand cuts. A May 10 New York Times editorial describes the bill as “driving to end abortion insurance coverage in the private market using the nation’s tax system as a weapon.” The legislation would wage a multi-prong attack on healthcare plans that include abortion coverage and tax credits for businesses that offer such plans, while permanently stripping federal abortion funding from all federal healthcare services, including Medicaid, Medicare and the Indian
Health Service.

The co-chair of the Congressional Prolife Caucus has slightly more complicated views on reproductive rights than his OnTheIssues.org voting record—zero for prochoice, 100 in antichoice metrics— would suggest. Earlier this year, Smith caused public outcry with the “forcible rape” clause he included in H.R. 3 as a way of barring some women’s access to abortion, specifically victims of statutory rape. Yet in a 1991 interview with the New York Times titled “Decade of Rep. Smith: Fluke to Tactician,” the New Jersey representative showed more sensitivity to rape victims when he imagined them as one of his daughters. He said that if one of his own daughters were raped, he would advocate that she use “high estrogen therapy” to prevent pregnancy.

Within the reproductive choices available 20 years ago, the statement is unmistakably a reference to emergency contraception. Some of the earliest emergency contraceptives (EC) were made of estrogen, while modern “morning after pills” are made with progesterone only or a combination of the two hormones. In 1973 the Food and Drug Administration approved the estrogen preparation diethylstilbestrol for the purpose of preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.

Unfortunately, Chris Smith has worked tirelessly to prevent the world’s women—other than his daughters—from having access to EC. “Emergency contraception in Peru: shifting government and donor policies and influences,” a 2007 article from Susana Chavez and Anna-Britt Coe, depicts Smith’s involvement in pressuring the USAID office in Peru to drop the provision of EC from its programs. In a 1997 edition of PRI Review, a publication from the ultra-conservative Population Research Institute, the Republican legislator objected to the provision of “post coital contraceptives” to refugees because it was “a code phrase for chemical abortifacients.” That the congressman
would have a double standard— allowing for his family members to use what he calls an “abortifacient”—shows a much greater degree of flexibility about reproductive rights than he is normally credited for.

Otherwise, Smith has repeatedly attempted to make his view that life begins at fertilization into law. In 1989, two years before the Times interview, he co-sponsored legislation, H.J. Res.103, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that alleged the personhood of “offspring at every stage of their biological development, including fertilization.” In 2001, the same month as his conversation with the New York Times, he remarked on CNN’s “Crossfire” program that “human life actually begins at fertilization.” Elsewhere in the 2001 Times interview, however, Smith stated, “You can’t tell within an hour, a day, even several days whether an egg has been fertilized.” This implies that a woman (but only if she was his daughter) would be acting morally as long as she made a reproductive choice while maintaining a state of ignorance about whether the egg had been fertilized. Ultimately, he says, “it is a question of intent.”

Chris Smith’s brand of human rights is just as arbitrary as his doling out of reproductive choice. Though he is chairman of the Africa, Global Health and Human Rights Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, when he speaks about human rights Smith is often talking about God-given rights, or what he called “the Prime Lawgiver’s law” in a speech delivered at the Conference on Globalization, Economy and the Family in Vatican City in 2000. Since these are not truly human rights— ones that apply to all humans—Smith unapologetically bestows more freedom to some people than others. Thus, his antichoice views grant a fetus more rights than a woman. In addition, he has voted against every piece of gay marriage legislation that has come before him. In fact, the only right for lgbt individuals Smith is on record as defending is their right not to be killed. Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch posted a 2009 letter signed by Smith and four other Republican legislators. The message asked Uganda’s president to reconsider legislation that would have put some LGBT people to death, while at the same time affirming the “inherent dignity and worth of all men and women” which somehow supported the “belief that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman.”

While he has been called out by PolitickerNJ for not owning a home in his district or spending much time there, Smith is known for spending a good portion of his time working on high-profile international issues. For example, he made headlines in 2008 by reuniting two New Jersey girls stranded overseas in Georgia. According to a 2009 post on NJ.com by NJ Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun, these activities betray Smith’s media savvy:

“Despite his protestations, Smith understands the power of the media to generate interest in issues steeped in emotion anyway—like children… He has a gift for embracing issues that touch nerves and generate publicity.”

Smith tends to be drawn across international boundaries by issues he’s passionate about—though he is quick to call out others for doing precisely that. Recently, he condemned the Obama administration for supporting Kenya’s constitutional process in violation of the Siljander Amendment, which prohibits the use of foreign assistance funds to lobby for abortion. It also prohibits lobbying against abortion, but, as documented by Mother Jones, Smith took a taxpayer-funded trip to Kenya in early 2011, where he gave a speech about “proabortion NGOs” and called for a “world free of abortion.”

Chris Smith’s tendency to push his own agenda has not gone unnoticed. In 2004, when he was attending a United Nations conference in Puerto Rico as a special guest, the congressman was criticized for breaching protocol when he sent a fax on Congressional letterhead to Guatemalan president Oscar Berger, asking him to reconsider his stance on UN reproductive rights legislation. Yet for the most part, he has continued to preach in his self-acclaimed voice of morality at home and abroad. This April, less than three months after his offensive “forcible rape” clause, he received the American Jewish Committee’s Leadership Award for his human rights work.

Perhaps the secret to Smith’s endurance was embedded in the speech he gave at the awards ceremony. He told the story of how he got involved in advocacy for the Jewish community:

“[The] doubletalk [about Jewish  rights] by Soviet officials was both numbing and motivating. Many of us got angry and I for one decided in Moscow that I was ‘all in.’”

Progressives can relate to Smith’s “numb” feeling: listening to his worldview can be enervating. But his torrent of words with their misappropriation of human rights language ennobles us also. He is, after all, not a political inevitability. He is merely skilled at claiming the moral high ground and then refusing to let it go, sometimes
forcing his opponents on the defensive. From this height, Smith depicts all other viewpoints as less valid, though positioning himself as the antichoice defender of women takes some fancy footwork.

By venturing into the forest of Bible references, scientific citations of varying validity and other rhetorical devices he uses, we quickly discover that the congressman is just one man, albeit one who uses his public position to make his highly personal viewpoint a reality. In a 1997 commencement speech delivered at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, Smith shared his motto: “We know what our Lord thinks about wishywashy, lukewarm people.” And if we don’t, Smith is happy to tell us his version of what the Lord thinks. The prochoice lobby has long been in vehement disagreement with Chris Smith’s claim to be residing on the moral high ground. But the more we read and learn about Smith’s self-serving use of religion and rights to further his own sanctity, the smaller he will become in all our eyes.

Catholics for Choice