Foreign policy's latest player N.J. Republican fuels stands with a passion against abortion

March 16, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Move over, Jesse Helms.

Christopher H. Smith, the boyish Republican who leads anti-abortion forces in the House, is usurping the senator from North Carolina's role as Congress' biggest obstacle on foreign policy.

In a game of political chicken with the White House, Smith's pivotal voting bloc has stalled congressional approval of nearly $1 billion that the United States owes to the United Nations and billions of dollars in new support for the International Monetary Fund. The impasse also threatens Helms' cherished State Department reorganization.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright calls it "legislative blackmail" and says that "this is shutting down our foreign policy."

Albright courted and won over the curmudgeonly Helms last year, helping to transform the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs, from a sinkhole of Clinton administration initiatives into a forum for respectful give and take between Congress and Foggy Bottom.

But Smith, 45, who represents a jagged slice of central New Jersey, is a different story. He and his allies are linking passage of major foreign-affairs legislation to a ban on money for family planning groups abroad that lobby for abortion rights. With the White House threatening a veto, the result has been to block the bills.

During a hearing with Albright last month, the eight-term congressman denounced President Clinton's advisers for giving "a blank check to the international abortion industry."

Then he proceeded to lecture the secretary, inserting a comment about his movement's rallying issue, late-term abortions.

"If it's shocking and inhumane to jam scissors and a vacuum hose into the head of a partially delivered baby, why is it any less violent, shocking and inhumane to dismember the bodies of children with surgical knives, or to dislodge and destroy babies with hideous suction machines?" he asked.

This graphic imagery doesn't even begin to convey Smith's passion -- some call it obsession. Eyes fixed on his listener, words pouring out in a fusillade, he speaks with a fervor born of two decades of activism and a drive fortified by prayer and fasting.

"When he's addressing a group, you look at him and his heels are in the air; he speaks on his toes," says Richard Traynor, a founder of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life in Morristown, N.J.

Human rights supporter

No one questions Smith's commitment. And while he gets tarred in Washington with a single-issue brush, critics who have watched him closely acknowledge that abortion isn't all that moves him. He is very serious about international human rights. "He actually cares about people after they're born," says a frequent opponent.

From Jews denied the right to emigrate from the former Soviet Union to Buddhists in Tibet; slaves in Sudan and Mauritania; ethnic Hutus in Congo; Vietnamese boat people; Copts in Egypt and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Smith has championed the causes of minority groups, political prisoners, the poor and campaigners for religious freedom around the world.

He visits prisons and refugee camps abroad and regularly gives victims of repression a platform in Washington at sometimes daylong hearings of his subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.

A three-time visitor to China, each time bearing lists of political prisoners to inquire about, Smith has used hearings and statements to put a harsh spotlight on Beijing, which he says "murders its own people and then lies about it."

China's government is a doubly tempting target for Smith because it's not only widely seen as repressive but it uses sterilization and coerced abortion to enforce a one-child policy.

His criticism draws praise from anti-Beijing activists such as Harry Wu, a Chinese-American who was detained by authorities in China in 1995 while working to expose prison conditions.

"I can't find many people like him on Capitol Hill," says Wu.

For Smith, human rights and opposition to abortion are pieces of the same value system that he says is summarized in a verse from Matthew 25 that stresses the need to help "the least of my brethren."

Catholic upbringing

It is rooted in a devoutly Roman Catholic Irish-American upbringing. Smith's father, a driver for Borden's milk who later opened a sporting-goods store, used to tip his hat when passing a church. Smith attended Catholic schools in Iselin and Perth Amboy, N.J.

"I think he's driven by his faith," says Rep. Tony P. Hall, an Ohio Democrat and a frequent ally of Smith's on international humanitarian issues.

"It defines him," says Stan DeBoe, a Trinitarian priest from Jessup who for five years served as Smith's part-time, $9,000-a-year adviser on international human rights and religious freedom.

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