Last October, the U.S. House passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on scientific evidence that fetuses can feel pain at this stage of development.
The bill passed by a 237–189 vote; all but three Democratic representatives voted against it. One of the three was long-time pro-lifer Dan Lipinski. Because of that vote — and the many other pro-life votes he has cast during his 14 years in Congress — Lipinski is facing a tough primary challenge this Tuesday in Illinois’s third congressional district.
Lipinski’s opponent, Marie Newman, is a progressive Democrat who has based her campaign in large part on his stalwart opposition to abortion. As a result, she has managed to gain some serious traction, enough that polls show the race close to a dead heat as we barrel toward Election Day.
While the seat will remain Democratic come November — whoever wins on Tuesday will face a Republican challenger who reportedly denies that the Holocaust took place — the race is a serious test of how the Left will navigate the fraught issue of abortion in this year’s midterms.
In short, Lipinski is a member of an endangered species. Along with being one of three House Democrats to vote for the Pain-Capable bill, he was one of only five to vote in January for the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which offers legal protection to infants that survive abortion procedures. In other words, 183 Democrats in the House opposed a bill prohibiting doctors from allowing newborn infants to die of neglect after botched abortion procedures.
This is today’s Democratic party, and Lipinski is one of the few bulwarks against a total transformation on abortion that has been underway since Roe v. Wade. While the Blue Dog Democrat has drawn plenty of fire from progressives in recent years — when he voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, for example, citing its unsustainable budget — the momentum for Newman’s primary threat was driven by abortion-rights groups frustrated with his consistent support for pro-life legislation.
Newman’s campaign received virtually no attention until she was endorsed by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL, and EMILY’s List — all motivated by her adherence to what is now effectively the Democratic party’s default stance on abortion: permitted for any reason, up until the moment of birth, and funded at taxpayer expense.
She has also locked down support from key progressive politicians, including two of Lipinski’s fellow Illinois representatives, Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez, along with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.). Sanders, who won the third district by eight points in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, called Newman part of the “tea party of the Left.”
This primary will do little to indicate whether Democrats will retake the House this November, but it’s certainly emblematic of an ongoing push from the progressive wing of the party to oust anyone who refuses to support increasingly liberal abortion policies.
This primary will do little to indicate whether Democrats will retake the House this November, but it’s certainly emblematic of an ongoing push from the progressive wing of the party to oust anyone who refuses to support increasingly liberal abortion policies. And that demand for total conformity is rapidly reshaping the party, leaving Lipinski and his few allies in the dust.
In 2016, the Democratic party platform for the first time officially opposed the Hyde Amendment, which is customarily added to federal spending bills to bar the use of taxpayer funds for abortion procedures. The party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, defended late-term abortions in front of the entire nation on the debate stage in Las Vegas. And when the Senate considered the Pain-Capable bill in January, all but three Democratic senators voted against it.
But while Lipinski might be out of step with his fellow Democratic politicians on abortion, he’s largely in line with the American people. The 20-week abortion ban, for example, has the support of two-thirds of Americans, including over half of Democrats and over half of pro-choice voters. According to the same data, just 12 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal during any stage of pregnancy, including only 21 percent of Democrats.
Meanwhile, over three-quarters of voters support significant abortion restrictions, such as limiting abortion to the first three months of pregnancy, to cases involving rape or incest, or to those where the life of the mother is in danger. Six in ten pro-choice Americans report supporting these types of restrictions, along with nearly 80 percent of independents.
These statistics are precisely why NARAL and Planned Parenthood have come down so hard against Lipinski in Illinois. Such groups can’t afford to let pro-life Democrats exist, because they are proof that valuing human life need not be a partisan belief. In fact, support for unlimited abortion is far from mainstream among voters, and the abortion lobby seems to fear that, if the Democratic party realizes the electoral value of allowing members to moderate on the issue, it might cease operating as a vehicle for unrestricted abortion rights.
How the national Democratic party resolves this tension could very well be a deciding factor in swing districts where center-left Democrats have a chance at success this year. Lipinski’s campaign is in many ways the last best hope for the idea that holdouts on abortion can survive in the party’s current climate. From the looks of this primary campaign, what has already been a remarkably uphill battle for pro-life Democrats is about to become an even tougher slog.