News Analysis

The trials of a pro-life Democrat


The career of the Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski is an object lesson in the centrality of abortion politics in today’s Democratic Party, and the shrinking space in the party for someone with a pro-life voting record.

In an incident that shows the party’s willingness to hang him out to dry, earlier this month Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairwoman Cheri Bustos pulled out of a planned fundraising appearance with Lipinski, after a backlash from progressives in the party. The DCCC said it still plans to support Lipinski (pictured at the March for Life) should he win the primary, but the contretemps sent a strong message about who the party’s leadership was listening to.

The fiasco over the DCCC fundraising appearance followed Lipinski’s decision to appear at a Campaign for Life gala earlier this month hosted by the Susan B Anthony List, a pro-life organisation. The Huffington Post’s headline blared that SBA List “is the driving force behind the wave of anti-abortion legislation popping up around the nation”.

The wave of criticism Lipinski has faced even prompted a defence from an unlikely source: the National Review. “All pro-lifers should hope on principle that Lipinski prevails against the campaign to purge the last Democrats who are willing to defend the right to life,” the magazine wrote in an editorial last week.

Lipinski represents what was once a blue-collar district in the Chicago suburbs. He has spoken at the March for Life, and co-chairs the Pro-Life Caucus in the House with Rep Chris Smith.

Senior Democrats are increasingly distancing themselves from Lipinski. In 2016, he backed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. This month, however, Sanders supported Lipinski’s primary opponent, Marie Newman, saying she would be a “powerful voice for upholding Roe v Wade”. Newman challenged Lipinski in 2018, but he squeaked by with a margin of 2,200 votes to retain his seat. Newman has also received money from groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood.

Since Lipinski first took the seat (from his father, curiously enough) in 2005, the district has been getting more wealthy and more diverse. As a Vox piece observed: “Once known for its conservative pockets, the area – surrounding Midway Airport, which spans parts of Cook and Will counties – is more diverse both socioeconomically and politically than it once was.”

The various state-level pro-life bills passed in Georgia and Missouri following the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh have reenergised the abortion-rights left, and taking Lipinski’s scalp – something they failed to do in 2018 – is one of their top priorities in 2020.

Archbishop Charles Chaput recently commented, in a post about Joe Biden’s decision to oppose the Hyde Amendment: “The unborn child means exactly zero in the calculus of power for Democratic Party leaders, and the right to an abortion, once described as a tragic necessity, is now a perverse kind of ‘sacrament most holy’.” Lipinksi may suffer the consequences.

For now, he still enjoys the support of the district’s old base: blue-collar unions. The transportation and building trade unions were two of the top five industries that supported his 2018 re-election effort, according to OpenSecrets. The Laborers Union, Bricklayers Union, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Carpenters & Joiners, Ironworkers and Pipefitters Unions each gave Lipinski at least $10,000.

In the current political moment, a Catholic Democrat may look like an anomaly. But historically speaking, there is a long association between Catholics and Democrats. Both have been opposed to puritanism and its political campaigns – Prohibition, for instance. That alliance of political convenience had some successes, but also things that in retrospect are at least as embarrassing as some Catholic conservative defences of the Iraq War. It’s hard to ignore the appearance of political expediency when Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes of New York suggested his own flock of urban labourers had problems at least as bad as the plantation slaves of the South.

Or to take a more recent example, it wasn’t exactly a credit to Catholic truth when John F Kennedy reassured a crowd of Houston Protestant ministers: “I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me.” While it’s arguably for the best that someone like Kennedy did not speak for the Church, this doesn’t sound like a devout person insisting on the faithful’s full inclusion in the American civil order. It sounds like a slightly embarrassed person who still wants to be president, with the help of – as Conor Cruise O’Brien put it – “the novel idea that Catholics were a specially reliable and especially tough breed of anti-communists”.

Lipinski is waging a lonely, and perhaps ultimately losing, battle. But as a moral witness and political example, he is a more noble figure than Kennedy. As Lipinski and politicians like him get squeezed out of the party of woke capitalism, both the unborn and the workers are likely to suffer.