WASHINGTON — During almost three decades on Capitol Hill, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., has shifted between a strategy of offense and defense on life issues.
Now, since Barack Obama moved into the White House, the congressman has reverted to his defensive game.
After Obama quickly acted to reverse the so-called Mexico City Policy that bans federal funding of abortions abroad, Smith joined with Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., Bart Stupak, D-Mich, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., in introducing H.R. 708, a bill designed to enshrine the Mexico City Policy into law.
Soon after introducing his bill, Smith dove into a short but intense legislative skirmish, after he spotted an unpublicized provision in the House appropriations bill that provided $50 million to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Previously, UNFPA had been denied federal funding because it backed China’s one-child-per-family population-control program, which permitted forced abortions and, thus, violated the Kemp-Kasten bill.
When Smith moved to amend the funding provision for UNFPA, his bill was quickly suppressed.
Given the Democrats’ political dominance in the wake of the 2008 presidential election, Smith and his pro-life allies didn’t expect a slew of legislative victories, though the new political equation in Washington won’t stop them from countering an abortion-rights movement that seeks to roll back decades of pro-life achievements.
Of equal importance, Smith faces another political challenge that will be difficult to engage: a charismatic president who has promised to initiate a bipartisan effort to “reduce abortions” — even as he characterizes pro-life concerns as a divisive “wedge” issue.
“We anticipated the reversal of the Mexico City Policy, but when it happened, it was a major blow. It will unleash $100 million to international population-control organizations with no pro-life safeguards,” Smith said.
Established by the Reagan administration, the Mexico City Policy created what pro-life activists have described as a “wall of separation” between family-planning efforts around the globe and international groups advocating abortion rights and providing abortions.
Smith believes that the reversal of that policy will have serious repercussions for the quality of health care in the developing world, where there is a shortage of trained medical personnel and a lack of resources to improve access to basic care.
“This will be catastrophic for maternal health services in Latin America and Africa. They do not want abortion on demand. But when outside organizations come in loaded with money, that influences policy and changes the focus of health care.”
Repeated calls to the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) Pro-Choice America were unreturned.
For the moment, Smith has little to show for his efforts. In the recent appropriations bill, which covers the rest of the fiscal year that ends in September, the domestic family-planning budget will increase by 8% and foreign aid for family planning will increase by 18%. And when Congress takes up bills for the 2009 fiscal year, there is every reason to expect a further expansion of family planning.
Smith, of course, has resided in the political wilderness before.
“Chris understands that consistency on these issues is important,” explained Tom McClusky, the chief lobbyist for the Family Research Council.
“Even when pro-life legislation cannot be advanced, he has been key in obtaining special orders that allow all the pro-lifers in Congress to go to the floor and speak about the issue,” noted McClusky. “At any given time, a million people are watching C-Span, and they will hear the message.”
After Obama rescinded the Mexico City Policy, the president fired a warning shot to pro-lifers, vowing to “restore U.S. financial support for the U.N. Population Fund,” according to a statement issued by the White House.
The president has fulfilled his promise. Now pro-life activists on Capitol Hill are scanning the horizon for their next legislative battle. Many expect it will be federal funding for embryo-killing stem-cell research, given President Obama’s March 9 executive order overturning President George W. Bush’s 2001 policy that limited such funding for that research.
“In this Congress, a great deal of our time will be spent defending policies that have been in place for many years,” acknowledged Richard Doerflinger, who heads the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and is a seasoned veteran of the abortion wars on Capitol Hill.
But Doerflinger isn’t solely preoccupied with specific legislative challenges. Every pro-life leader in Washington is also looking to counter the rhetorical campaign that has accompanied the post-election political shift.
While pro-life congressmen like Smith characterize the reversal of the Mexico City Policy as “tragic,” President Obama has described his executive action as an effort to “protect and empower women and promote global economic development.”
The president has promised to “initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground.”
Doerflinger describes such statements as “Orwellian doublespeak.” The Mexico City Policy is “about abortion. It’s not about whether you fund family planning. In the early appropriations process, the first rider they attacked was the prohibition against funding organizations that support programs of coerced abortion. If you want to find a consensus issue, it’s coerced abortion: It was condemned as a crime against women at the 1995 U.N. 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing.”
Supporters of Obama’s executive action argue that the expansion of U.S. funding for abortions rights will benefit women in developing countries, where maternal morality rates are high.
But Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a pro-life group that monitors abortion-rights lobbying efforts at the United Nations, questions the credibility of the data on global maternal mortality rates circulated by some abortion advocacy groups.
“Most countries don’t even register deaths based on sex, let alone the cause of death,” Ruse contended.
Ruse argued that most women in Africa and Latin America need basic obstetric care, antibiotics, and trained birth attendants, not increased access to abortions.
Chris Smith and his pro-life allies share this judgment, but they face an uphill battle to make their case on Capitol Hill.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.
March 22-28, 2009 Issue