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Promoting a culture of life’

By NICOLE MICHELS | Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ-4) and his wife, Marie Smith, will receive the 2014 University of Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal in the spring, the University stated in a press release on Oct. 8. 

First elected to the House in 1980, Chris Smith has represented the 4th district of New Jersey for 33 years. Marie Smith serves as founder and director of the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues (PNCI).

The award honors “individuals whose outstanding efforts have served to proclaim the Gospel of Life by steadfastly affirming and defending the sanctity of human life from its earliest stages,” the press release stated. 

Carter Snead, director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, stated in the press release that the couple is being honored for their work “promoting a Culture of Life in the public square.”

“Through their tireless efforts to battle human trafficking and promote human rights, particularly the right to life of the unborn, Chris and Marie Smith provide a powerful witness to the dignity of all human life. We are honored to award them the Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal.” 

Recipients are awarded a specially commissioned medal and a $10,000 prize, if permissible, according to the release. Marie Smith said the monetary award will be given to her organization.

He and his wife have been involved in right to life issues since their undergraduate years at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey, Chris Smith said. But for him, his passion for the issue started after his experiences in a public speaking class.

“In 1972 before Roe v. Wade, I had to do a speech for a public speaking class,” Chris Smith said. “I choose [to discuss] abortion, and there were several speeches done in retaliation to mine. I’ll never forget, I read a story about a child in New York, which had recently legalized abortion. The child survived the abortion … the abortionist was livid as if the mother was entitled to a dead baby and the baby went on to be adopted. 

“This story got the wheels of my mind spinning about abortion as violence, not just to the child but to the mother.”

After working on another campaign in 1976, Chris Smith served as executive director for the New Jersey Right to Life Committee. Chris Smith then ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1978 before the fourth district elected him in 1980, when he was 27 years old.

 A senior member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Smith also works as co-chair of the bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus. Throughout his time in the House, Chris Smith said he has focused on defending fundamental human rights by fighting human trafficking efforts and advancing religious freedom. 

“One of the things I have learned about this job, I see this as a ministry … a place where you can take the Gospel and defend fundamental human rights, which are at the core of the Gospel,” Chris Smith said. “You can really take a job like this and use it strategically and effectively to bring about positive change.”

Chris Smith said among his most notable legislative accomplishments protect those who have been victimized in some way, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Combating Autism Act of 2006 and the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005. 

The cause of the pro-life movement can be advanced on purely human rights grounds, he said. 

 “I try to argue it in secular terms, because on human rights [grounds] people can accept that killing is the wrong thing to do … [at least] to most age groups,” Chris Smith said. “It’s a schizophrenic perspective to say that if you are wanted we will take care of you and if you are unwanted we will destroy you. Human rights or for all, or they are not human rights.  In every floor speech I’ve given I’ve emphasized that it is a violence against children and against mothers.”

For him, he said his faith also factors into his desire to advocate for the pro-life movement.

“I do believe that if one truly believes in the Gospels, but particularly ‘Matthew 25’ where he said, ‘Whatever you do to the least of our brothers you do onto me’ … it is a circumstantial thing but there are ‘least’ all around us,” Chris Smith said. “It is a consistent value of life that has to be aggressively promoted, that nobody gets left behind. A newborn, a disabled person, an unborn baby, a mother in distress, it’s all a matter of trying to radiate Christ to the best of our abilities. We have a duty to protect that is not so easily satisfied … the challenge is to try to the best of our abilities through grace and perseverance to do his work on Earth as well.”

Throughout his work, Chris Smith said his wife has been his partner professionally as well as personally. Her work reaches a different audience than his does, he said.

“My wife has done so much for 40 years on life issues. … Unfortunately, the spotlight goes on me, but she really is a hero of mine and she certainly has been a driving force for years particularly on the international issues,” Chris Smith said. “She has been a champion for human rights, particularly for the unborn.”

Marie Smith said her attention to right to life issues began in college when she and her roommates joined a group working against abortion.

“We weren’t really driven on the issue of abortion [at that point], we just wanted to make a contribution to something positive,” Marie Smith said. “But once I got involved in the issue I was very moved by the fact that the right to life is the first human life, and without that right all other rights are void.”

Marie Smith said she has worked as a pro-life activist since her first exposure to the issue as an undergraduate. Before her work with PNCI, Marie Smith worked at the Life Issues Institute and as the International Director for Feminists for Life. She also received the 2009-2010 Life Prizes award for her pro-life work. 

She said the time period in which she joined the movement proved challenging for anti-abortion and pro-life activists.

“We were up against the radical feminist mantra, ‘Our body ourselves,’ and the belief that the fetus was just a parasite – but science was showing us that this was a completely separate individual,” Marie Smith said. “For me, it was really just about the fact that life is precious … but in that time period it was all about [the idea] that it was a woman’s body and a woman’s right to choose.”

Working within feminist groups during this time period as a champion for life was difficult because some feminists viewed the pro-life movement as a threat to their work for the Equal Rights Amendment, she said.

“I went to a New Jersey Meeting [on the Equal Rights Amendment] … I was able to make a speech but when I talked about [our] need to be consistent and [that] we couldn’t deny others the most basic right to life while claiming rights for ourselves,” Marie Smith said. “A shouting match erupted over the microphone I still had in my hand [with] somebody from NOW [the National Organization for Women] who was running the event.

“Experiences like that really made me more confident in the [activist] position, it’s a little counterintuitive that the greater the challenge was the more important I felt it was, but I realized that I needed to be more committed to it.”

She said she feels the political landscape has changed for pro-life activists today because a majority of younger women are supporting the pro-life position. Still, she said pro-life activists face a number of roadblocks.

“The greatest challenge, really, is that we are facing opponents who are extremely well-funded and well-connected, and they have just infiltrated key agencies of the United States and elsewhere. We really are a David vs. Goliath,” Marie Smith said. “That is the greatest challenge, overcoming the deception that this great money machine has been able to play out to the culture. I think that we’re winning, culturally, [in the fight to prove] that abortion is wrong.”

Though Marie Smith and her husband have achieved numerous legislative and advocacy successes for the pro-life movement, she said the most rewarding moments have been among the most simple.

“The greatest success is meeting young people who are alive today because of pro life work,” she said. “When we work and a bill passes or something, that is a success and you feel accomplishment with that, but when someone is alive because their mother heard a pro-life message and turned away from abortion, there is nothing greater than that.”

Contact Nicole Michels at nmichels@nd.edu