And then there were three. That is how many pro-life Democrats remain in the House of Representatives. And the abortion industry is looking to reduce that number by a third in March, by funding a primary challenge to Chicago Congressman Dan Lipinski. If successful, this campaign will likely push Democrats to fight harder for public funding and against any conscience protections. If it fails, it likely won’t signal a sea change in abortion politics—but it might loosen the pro-choice stranglehold on the Democratic National Committee just a bit, giving politicians like Lipinski a chance to speak out for the smallest among us, in what was once the party of the little guy.
I was raised in a pro-life and pro-labor household in a rural east Texas county where the Democratic primary was the local election. We actually did look for the union label, but you didn’t have to look hard to find the National Right to Life newsletter amid the mail on the kitchen counter. Eventually, the party of life trumped the party of labor, in our house and in our state. Lipinski’s district represents one of the last holdouts from an era when “pro-life Democrat” was not an oxymoron.
In June 1976, as the politics of abortion were just beginning their transformation, another Chicago congressman, Republican Henry Hyde, teamed with Democrat Jim Oberstar of Minnesota to offer an amendment banning Medicaid funding for abortions. The issue was not a theoretical one. Taxpayers had paid for 300,000 or so abortions each year since Roe v. Wade in 1973. The amendment passed the House, 207 to 167, with 107 Democrats in the affirmative. Battles with a less life-friendly Senate led to more votes in the House, all of which pro-lifers won. The final round of voting came after the inclusion of an exception for the life of the mother, and with 151 Democrats in support it passed the House, 256 to 114.
The Hyde Amendment received the support of the newly elected Jimmy Carter. The Democratic president appointed a sympathetic Catholic cabinet secretary to oversee its implementation, and his Justice Department defended the law against a legal challenge, with the pro-life side prevailing 5-4 at the Supreme Court in 1980. Some form of the Hyde Amendment has guided federal spending ever since, though always as a budget rider, not as a stand-alone statute. In 2016, Democrats for the first time explicitly called for public funding of abortions in their party platform.
Last year, the House voted to make the Hyde Amendment principles more permanent, by means of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act. Only three Democrats voted for the act: Lipinski; Collin Peterson, long representing a Republican-leaning rural district in Minnesota; and Henry Cuellar, who represents a mostly Hispanic district along the Rio Grande in Texas. More recently, when the question was whether abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy should be banned, it was again only these three among the Democrats who stood for the unborn. Neither bill has been passed by the Senate.
By taking out Peterson in a primary, the abortion industry would likely hand the seat to the GOP in the general election. Going after Cuellar might have the effect of focusing the Hispanic community on abortion, at a time when Democrats believe they can mobilize this demographic along other lines (such as immigration). By contrast, Hillary Clinton outpolled Donald Trump in Lipinski’s district by fifteen points, and so pro-abortion progressives have come loaded for bear. NARAL Pro-Choice America has already run television ads against Lipinski. The LGBTQ-focused Human Rights Campaign is campaigning against him. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has come to Chicago to fundraise for his opponent, Marie Newman, who already has the support of Emily’s List. Gloria Steinem has endorsed Newman, and in an unusual break with caucus decorum, two Chicago Democrats in Congress have as well.
Lipinski has the support of the AFL-CIO, a sizeable war chest, name recognition, and goodwill that goes back to when his father represented the district. He does not dodge his opposition to abortion, telling Politico, “I'm pro-life. I make no bones about that. Always have been.” Lipinski has often spoken at pro-life events, including the 2018 Chicago March for Life. He was scheduled to speak this year at the March for Life on the National Mall, as he has done before. But he decided against sharing the stage (or at least the Jumbotron) with President Trump, who was a late addition and addressed the event via live video stream.
The full force of the pro-abortion movement is now coming at Lipinski to ensure that no Democrat ever takes that stage again. This is the latest flashpoint in a long-standing but recently revived debate about whether any dissent from the pro-choice party line will be tolerated. Last year, DNC chairman Tom Perez blackballed Heath Mello, a rising star in Democrat-starved Nebraska, because of his personal pro-life views (views that only occasionally seemed to influence his votes). Perez said that Democrats should speak with “one voice” on abortion. Independent Bernie Sanders came to Mello’s defense, but Mello lost his race for mayor of Omaha.
Many on the pro-choice left would rather lose than endure an even mildly pro-life victor. In going after Lipinski, though, they see the chance to win and replace one of the last vocal social conservatives in blue with a standard pro-abortion Democrat. Will the pro-life movement speak up in response?
John Murdock teaches at the Handong International Law School.