Dan Lipinski, One of the Last Pro-Life Democrats, Discusses Abortion and His Party
‘We know how important this issue is, protecting life, and we need to keep fighting,’ the outgoing representative counsels.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., is an eight-term Catholic, pro-life congressman who lost his primary recently to pro-abortion challenger Marie Newman after abortion groups backed her with substantial funding.
But despite this setback the Catholic congressman remains firm in his pro-life beliefs and in his decision to remain true to those convictions despite the cost to his political career.
Lipinski spoke with the Register in a phone interview Monday about the ways he’s seen the Democratic Party shift on the abortion issue, what the pro-life movement can do to embrace Democratic voters, and why his pro-life stance is so important to him.
Pro-lifers across the country were disappointed by your loss in the primary. To what do you attribute the outcome?
I don’t believe this would have been a race if not for the fact that there was between $2 and $3 million, maybe even more, spent against me based on the fact that I’m pro-life. This is money spent by NARAL and Emily’s List and other abortion groups. That certainly had a significant impact on the election, I believe.
In terms of the turnout, the coronavirus may have had an impact on the turnout of older voters who are more favorable to me. But, overall, certainly the abortion issue loomed extremely large, because you couldn’t turn on the TV in the Chicago area in the last three or four weeks or go on social media without seeing an attack on me because I’m pro-life.
What's your message now to your longtime supporters and to pro-life Democrats?
Don’t stop fighting. Hang in there. It’s tough right now in the Democratic Party — it’s always been difficult, but I think it’s become even more difficult over the past year. Democratic leaders, presidential candidates, now are saying that there is no room for pro-life voters in the Democratic Party. One-third of Democratic voters across the country self-identify as pro-life, and we need to hang in there. It’s not going to be easy, and I encourage everyone to keep going. We know how important this issue is, protecting life, and we need to keep fighting. I think it’s important for there to be pro-life voters in the Democratic Party. It’s important for the pro-life movement.
How has pro-abortion activism and the pro-life movement changed in the years you’ve been in office?
There used to be many more pro-life Democrats in Congress even back 10 years ago, when the Affordable Care Act passed. We did have a vote the first time the bill went through the House on a bill to block taxpayer funding of abortion or insurance plans that covered abortion, and we had 64 Democrats that voted for it. The last time we had a vote on taxpayer funding for abortion, it referred to the District of Columbia. This was probably three or four years ago; I think we had four Democrats who voted to block that funding. Things have changed significantly in the party.
First of all, some of it is that voters who are pro-life have been leaving the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party has been certainly signaling for many years now that it is a party that is “pro-choice,” as it would say. There was a time when the Democratic Party did still welcome [pro-lifers], and even had in the platform, say 20 years ago, that there’s a variety of views in the party and people who are pro-life are welcome. That has just gradually changed over the years.
It’s exemplified in the fact that Joe Biden, when he announced he was running for president, felt that he needed to change his decadeslong position on the Hyde Amendment on taxpayer funding for abortion. He was always in favor of the Hyde Amendment and opposed to taxpayer funding of abortion, but when he announced he was running for president, he felt running in the Democratic presidential primary he had to change his position. I think that exemplifies the pressure now that is put by outside groups on Democrats to take an extreme position on the abortion issue and certainly something that’s new in the last couple of years.
Are there currently any Democrats in Congress who you would call “pro-life” or who are sympathetic to the issue?
There are a few. Collin Peterson from Minnesota is pro-life on every issue that we vote on in the House; a couple of other members: Henry Cuellar from Texas, who was also targeted in his primary, not quite as radically as I was but he was targeted by the same abortion groups — he won his primary narrowly; Ben McAdams of Utah [is another]. Henry and Ben have on many issues voted pro-life.
Beyond that, the numbers are very few. Every once in a while, there’s a pro-life issue in the House that we pick up another Democrat on, but it really is down to a small, small number.
What kind of influence do Planned Parenthood and other abortion groups have over Democratic politicians?
They have a lot of money, and it makes a big difference. The issue is if you want to run for office as a Democrat and you’re pro-life, you know these groups — NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and others — you know that they are going to spend a lot of money to defeat you in the primary. Those groups are likely the reason that these Democrats running for president understand that they can’t have these groups opposing them. That’s why they take the extreme position on abortion.
I think one of the most important things that is missed is how extreme the position is of these abortion groups. It really is hidden in elections, as it was in mine. A month ago we had a vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to say that if a baby is born during an attempted abortion that baby needs to be given the same treatment that any other baby is given. And that’s a bill that just three Democrats in the House voted for, but that’s a position that a large majority of Americans support. You wouldn’t know by watching the TV ads that this is what these groups support. The fact that taxpayer funding of abortion is still opposed by a majority of Americans, that’s another issue that we vote on in the House.
I can’t think of anything that we voted on [in the House] with regard to abortion that is not supported by a majority of Americans. These groups manage to never confront these issues because they don’t want to confront those issues — because they know that the majority is opposed to the position that they take.
What are some things that you think the pro-life movement could do to reach Democratic voters?
I’ve had a lot of younger people who are pro-life talk to me and say that they generally, on most issues, would lean toward the Democratic Party, but they are turned off by the Democratic Party because of the stance on abortion. There are a lot of people who are out there, especially young people, who are in that position. It’s a tough balancing act, I understand, because of the position that Democratic elected officials, Democratic leaders take on the issue of abortion, but the pro-life movement and pro-life groups need to make clear that they welcome anybody: They welcome even people who have very different views on other issues than what most people in the pro-life movement take.
The activist groups that are successful are the ones that focus exclusively on their issue, and it’s important that pro-life groups, the pro-life movement accepts people who are pro-life, no matter what their opinion on other issues may be — that it’s not going to exclusively be a Republican group and that they’re not just going to support Republicans; they will truly support Democrats who are pro-life. I think that’s one of the most important issues that we have to face in the pro-life movement. It’s difficult to do. I understand that because there’s a lot of other issues that a lot of pro-life voters agree upon. There are issues that we won’t agree with some people on, a lot of what they believe, but as long as they’re pro-life, we need to accept them. I think that’s the bottom line, and that’s the only way that we are going to be successful in the pro-life movement.
What are your thoughts on the insistence of many abortion clinics on remaining open despite the global pandemic and shutdown of nonessential health-care providers?
It’s just in keeping with the efforts of these organizations, especially Planned Parenthood: to try to continue to send the message out that abortion is simply medical care. And that’s an issue that we in the pro-life movement need to continue to fight against. This battle over abortion and whether abortion is essential care during the coronavirus pandemic is just another place where that’s happening. I would fully expect Planned Parenthood to make that point, first of all, because their business largely is providing abortion, and they want to keep trying to send the message to the general public that abortion is simply medical care.
How has your Catholic faith influenced your political life and your life in general?
I am hopeful that my Catholic faith has really influenced everything in my life. As a Catholic, I believe that it should influence everything in my life. I’ve always believed in a life of service, and that’s something that was taught to me in Catholic school, at church and initially at home. I have always tried to follow that. I was a college professor before I ran for Congress, and I saw teaching as a way of service. I certainly see being a member of Congress as that purpose, to serve others, and so that, certainly, I hope, is something that drives me. I always think about that in anything that I’m doing in my job as a member of Congress or anything that I’m doing in my life. My Catholic faith, I understand, is not something that I just practice once a week on Sunday; it’s something that is 24/7, every day.
On the abortion issue, it’s something I always say I initially came to the belief that life begins at conception because I was taught that as a Catholic, but I also came to understand that science shows us that life begins at conception. I’m not pro-life only because I’m Catholic; it’s because of what I believe science shows us about when life begins. But because I’m Catholic I want to protect the most vulnerable. The child in the womb is probably the most vulnerable human being on the planet.
Are there any pro-life achievements in Congress that you are particularly proud of?
In Congress itself, it’s been a tough battle on the abortion issue, so there’s not a whole lot that I can say. I remember the one time that I was very proud was when the Affordable Care Act first went through the House and pro-life Democrats were able to hold out and we got it changed. We got an amendment added that prevented taxpayer funding of abortion or insurance that covered abortion. I still remember that moment voting on that and being very happy, very proud that we were able to do that. Unfortunately, it was all undone when the Senate passed their bill and the House just took up the Senate bill, which did not include the same provision in it.
Through the years, I’m happy we’ve been able to protect the Hyde Amendment. I’m concerned about the Hyde Amendment going forward, but that’s a place that we definitely have to make sure that we hold the line. There are other smaller issues where we have had an influence, but a lot has been done in both directions through the executive branch in my time in Congress. Not a lot has been done with respect to abortion in Congress, but I’ve always been there to be supportive and try to move legislation to protect life.
This is not just a battle in politics. I think it’s largely a battle to win hearts and minds on the issue. After I leave Congress — I have nine months left — I’m going to continue to work to promote a culture of life. In one way or another, no matter what I’m doing, I’m going to continue to be active in the pro-life movement.
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington based staff writer.