Published March 18, 2020
In Illinois last night, abortion-rights advocate Marie Newman unseated pro-life representative Dan Lipinski in the Democratic primary for the third congressional district. Based on ratings from anti-abortion groups, Lipinski was the last remaining stalwart pro-lifer among Democratic politicians in Congress.
It is a symbolic end to an era that really ended a long time ago, a time when Democratic politicians could vote against taxpayer-funded abortion and in favor of abortion restrictions without being ousted from their seats, and when the party’s leadership acknowledged and welcomed pro-life voters whose views on other issues aligned them with the party.
With Lipinski’s loss, there is no longer even the slightest bit of room for Democrats to give themselves cover on this issue, and they appear not to mind. The Democratic Party is, at the national level, filled with politicians who support abortion on demand, at any stage of pregnancy, for any reason, funded by the U.S. taxpayer.
This is dramatically out of step with most Americans, only 13 percent of whom favor allowing elective abortion in the last three months of pregnancy and nearly three-quarters of whom would limit abortion to the first three months or to cases of rape or incest, or not permit it at all. It is also out of step with most Democrats, only 18 percent of whom would allow third-trimester abortion. A full 30 percent of Democrats call themselves pro-life.
Instead of being accommodated or reassured, these Democrats are explicitly told by the politicians seeking to represent them that their views have no place in their own party — a curious election strategy.
In 2017, Democratic leaders derided Bernie Sanders when he endorsed Heath Mello for mayor of Omaha, Neb., after abortion-advocacy groups dubbed Mello “anti-choice” for having backed a law requiring doctors to give women the option to view a fetal ultrasound prior to abortion (hardly a stringent anti-abortion law, though it is revealing that abortion supporters opposed it).
A lot can change in three years. Last month, Sanders declared during a town hall that “being pro-choice is an essential part of being a Democrat.” Former presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg made the same assessment in January, telling Kristen Day, director of the beleaguered Democrats for Life, that he would not budge an inch on the issue. (Day, for the record, did not ask Buttigieg to change his position on abortion but rather to “support more-moderate platform language . . . to ensure that the party of diversity, of inclusion really does include everybody.” It took him several minutes to get around to saying, in essence, “Keep dreaming.”)
What, then, is a pro-life Democrat to do? And what happened to the party that used to feature men like Dan Lipinski and his pro-life Democratic father Bill, one or the other of whom has represented the third congressional district in Illinois since 1983?
Here an anecdote might be helpful. In 1992, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Bob Casey Sr., was slated to speak at the party’s national convention in New York City but in the end was not permitted to do so. Though Democrats have since contended that this was because he had not endorsed the presidential ticket, contemporaneous reporting shows that it was in fact because he intended to speak about his opposition to abortion, at a time when the party was beginning more uniformly to embrace abortion rights. It was Casey who went to the Supreme Court in 1992 to defend his state’s regulations on abortion clinics, losing in the landmark case Planned Parenthood v. Casey that currently governs abortion jurisprudence.
Today, Casey’s son, Bob Casey Jr., serves as a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, and in recent years has received a 100 percent score from NARAL Pro-Choice America for his voting record on abortion rights.
The Democratic Party has been on this trajectory for a long time, driven in no small part by its desire for the financial backing and public-relations acclaim of powerful actors such as NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the conglomerate of women’s media groups that writer and former editor of Ladies’ Home Journal Myrna Blyth christened the “Spin Sisters.”
“Reproductive rights is the issue that all women must care and agree about,” Blyth wrote in her 2004 book Spin Sisters of these publications and their ability to drive public opinion. “To keep the support of the Spin Sisters, politicians may not stray even a hair from the Planned Parenthood position.”
Though the Democratic allegiance to unlimited legal abortion surely has something to do with the millions of campaign dollars that flow from abortion-advocacy groups, it has perhaps even more to do with the optics of the issue, with the fact that Planned Parenthood and its media allies could sound the death knell for a campaign by deeming a Democrat “anti-choice” for doing something as anodyne as supporting a woman’s right to be offered the chance to view an ultrasound. (It was, for instance, primarily these groups that funded and championed Newman’s campaign to unseat Lipinski.)
State politics confirm this theory, where pro-life Democrats continue to reelect pro-life Democratic politicians who enact anti-abortion laws, out of reach of the national abortion-advocacy apparatus. In Louisiana, Democratic legislator Katrina Jackson sponsored a bill, currently facing a challenge at the Supreme Court, to extend existing safety measures to abortion clinics. That bill, along with a heartbeat bill banning abortion after six weeks’ gestation, was signed into law by the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. In West Virginia earlier this month, Democratic lawmakers helped to pass a born-alive bill, requiring doctors to care for newborn infants who survive an abortion procedure.
These proposals have no hope of passing Congress, where the consistent leftward shift of the Democratic Party has left pro-life liberals like Dan Lipinski, and all the voters who valued his leadership, without a home.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.