WASHINGTON — For the pro-life movement, the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., lifts the spirits of the countless number of marchers who arrive in January — little deterred by cold or weather — to commemorate the injustice of legal abortion and commit to build a life-affirming culture at home.
Rep. Chris Smith R-N.J., co-chairman of the bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus, has joined the March for Life nearly every year since it began on Jan. 22, 1974, the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions. He spoke with the Register ahead of the inauguration and march about why, with this year’s national march on Jan. 27, he has added hope that between the Donald Trump administration and Republican Congress and the youthful witness of the march, the pro-life movement will be able to advance its mission in substantial, positive ways.
What effect do you think the Trump administration will have on the pro-life movement?
I think nothing but positive. He is committed personally, and his vice president has a long and distinguished track record. [Vice President Mike Pence] offered the Pence Amendment to defund Planned Parenthood, he was a stalwart pro-lifer, and I think that commitment, which is so rooted in his faith, will continue right into this administration. I don’t think it — I know it.
We have an opportunity now to do what we’ve been trying to do for a decade, and that is defund an organization that has killed over 7 million babies, runs the largest chain of abortion mills in the world, supports partial-birth abortion and was one of the leaders to keep it legal, was diametrically opposed to the Hyde Amendment, and now we know there is overwhelming evidence that they have been involved in procuring baby parts from unborn children. The Select Committee, and the good work that was done by Sen. [Chuck] Grassley in his referrals, makes it clear that there will be more, not less, scrutiny given to these nefarious activities they have engaged in that are brutal — anti-life. Planned Parenthood is “child abuse incorporated,” and now there will be a bitter and difficult fight. But I think we will begin the process of defunding an organization that has killed over 7 million babies and harmed their mothers.
In terms of good solid policy, we were worried that if Hillary Clinton won, the Hyde Amendment itself, and all the other enactments, funding bans, state and federal, were at risk of Supreme Court reversal. Hyde was upheld 5-4 in 1980, but [if] one more judge whose views are anti-life gets on the high bench, the Hyde Amendment could have been easily eviscerated. You don’t want to have too much time feeling relieved, because we have a profound duty to protect the weakest and most vulnerable to the greatest extent possible.
How do you see the role the March for Life plays this year?
I’ve been going to the march with my wife, Marie, since 1974. I think I missed one in the ’70s because I had the flu. I can tell you as a college student and as a person in his 20s, as a new congressman when I was 27, Marie and I would always be there, and our family. It has always been a time of great inspiration, of rededication, because you’re with so many people of faith and share that commitment to defending the vulnerable unborn child and their mothers. It recharges your batteries for another year of difficult and arduous battle. So I have always found it to be an inspirational day.
It is a day of prayer — because there is so much prayer offered at the march — that I believe rises to heaven and is heard. The faith at the march, every year, puts it in perspective — the respect of faith is awe-inspiring. In recent years, the amount of young people has also been inspiring. There has been a trend among the young to be protective of the unborn. I can tell you in years past I would go to a high school and get asked about a right-to-life issue and get booed. Now, I get applause. There has been a sea change in attitude.
What was one of the more inspiring moments for you at the March for Life over the years?
Sen. James Buckley gave a tremendous speech in 1976; Henry Hyde, of course; and so many great people. But I remember when Ronald Reagan called in, and the head of the March for Life, Nellie Gray, asked him about the D.C. appropriations bill while he was on the phone, and said it’s not enough to just have language that says no federal funds, it has to be all funds, [such as] local funds that are included for abortion use — and he changed his policy right there and then on the phone.
He may not have been aware of how the other side was gaming the language, because they would say, “Okay, there’s no federal funds [for abortion].” Well, we oversee all funds, local and federal, and they just paid for abortion on demand in D.C. So that happened at the march.
When you were there for the first time in 1974, what impact did it make on you?
Well, I got involved in the [pro-life] movement in 1972. My wife, when I met her, got involved a year later. Marty Dannenfelser was there too, Marjorie’s husband [Marjorie is the president of the pro-life organization Susan B. Anthony List]; we both worked and cofounded the State College pro-life ministry. And we brought down a group of students from what is now called the College of New Jersey; then it was called Trenton State College. We actually had a reporter who rode down with us and wrote a nice article about youth speaking up. She didn’t agree with us about the issue, but wrote a pretty fair piece, and I was part of one of those mega busloads making their way to the capital.
What it did for me was Nellie Gray did a wonderful job with her committee, in putting the focus on protecting the baby — life principles, as she called them — and they were all ways of us beginning to say, “We have to go back and speak out.” Children are at risk on a college campus, obviously, and at enhanced risk for the abortion industry to exploit women who are in a vulnerable position. So we ratcheted up our efforts on college campuses, doing seminars, and brought Birthright in several times. And then, in ’76, I was actually the campaign manager for a man who was running for the U.S. Senate, and I got to speak briefly — Steve Foley, his name was — but that’s also the year James Buckley spoke and gave a magnificent speech, along with so many others.
So, it’s a time to be inspired and take that inspiration back to the arduous work of defending life.
How has the march changed over the years, and how have you personally seen it bring people into the pro-life movement and into doing pro-life work?
It’s changed, but what has stayed the same is its faith focus — in that, apart from the Lord we can do nothing, and the appeal to heaven [is needed] to stop this terrible destruction of unborn babies, and the harming of their mothers, and other ancillary issues like assisted suicide, such as the Terri Schiavo case. Her brother has spoken many times at the march very eloquently. It is all about at-risk life, the largest number of whom happen to be unborn babies. And it’s changed, but in a way, it has been reassuringly the same, because it’s based on faith: that if we ask in faith in the name of Jesus, positive things will happen. It may not happen in a day, but as it says in the Scriptures, “Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door shall be open.” The word used in the original Greek was [about] “keep asking; keep knocking.” It’s all about persistence, and I think this movement has been the personification of faith-filled persistence. It just never, ever gives in.
And it’s brought up all these new wonderful leaders, young people, and I look at the new members coming in, the last class that’s coming in now to Congress, and these are unbelievably committed women and men who take their faith seriously, but they also see that faith without works is dead. They believe the faith needs the works as well, [and] works in the political arena need to be done.
I’ve seen, sadly, the Democrat Party has been eviscerated of its pro-life ranks [in Congress], down to three. When I got here it was 85, but the Republican Party has picked up that slack, and it is now a totally committed pro-life party with a leadership — with [House Speaker] Paul Ryan and [House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy and [House Majority Whip] Steve Scalise and [House Republican Conference chair] Cathy McMorris Rogers — that are totally committed to the sanctity of life. Not only an issue, it’s a commitment. I can’t say that has always been the case with too many speakers. But Paul Ryan has made conscience protection one of his highest priorities, and, hopefully, a Trump administration will be able to undo some of the egregious attacks on conscience that were fomented by the Obama administration.
What most are you looking forward to with this upcoming March for Life?
I think it will inspire; it will demonstrate to the country and the world, because, increasingly, more and more world leaders come, and marches like this have been replicated all over the world. Peru had a huge march for life in Lima just recently, hundreds of thousands in the streets for life, so the March for Life has inspired similar undertakings throughout the world as a way of galvanizing support, bringing politicians forward to speak; of course, having clergy; and, increasingly, at these marches women who are silent no more who tell the story of the agony they suffered, particularly post-abortion, that the other side trivializes or ignores. So this will be a pivot point, as it has been so often in the past, for doing the difficult but necessary work of protecting the weakest and most vulnerable, and as Our Lord said, the least of our brethren.
The centrality of Christ means that we need to defend the least of our brethren, and the least of our brethren in modern times, in this country especially, are unborn children.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.