Pro-Life Democrat Lipinski Reflects on How Party Has Changed

January 8, 2021 Updated: January 8, 2021

CHICAGO—One of the last pro-life Democrats in Congress left office as 2020 closed.

Over his eight terms, Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) saw the number of pro-life Democrats in the lower house dwindle from about 60 to almost none.

Many times he felt pressure to go with the tide. He was told to either quit being a Democrat or quit being pro-life—that he could not have both.

But he didn’t listen, and he believes that choice cost him reelection.

“I don’t value my seat in the House of Representatives—as much as I was honored to be a representative for 16 years—more highly than I value standing up for what’s right,” Lipinski told The Epoch Times.

His Christian-based morals, along with his education as a scientist, led him to his pro-life stance.

“Faith and reason go together,” Lipinski said. “The science clearly shows us that life begins at conception. I believe in following the science when the science is clear.”

He stayed with the Democratic Party because he felt one of its foundational principles is to help the most vulnerable.

“As a Democrat, I stand for the vulnerable people,” Lipinski said. “The unborn are the most vulnerable people. I believe that being pro-life fits in being a Democrat.”

He didn’t expect to become known for his pro-life stance. He didn’t expect that to overshadow his other work in Congress as it did, as he became an increasingly rare specimen in an increasingly homogenous party.

Some of the proudest accomplishments of his career, including using his local offices to help constituents with their everyday problems, and legislation he helped enact related to transportation, science, and manufacturing.

He was always a moderate Democrat, he said, upholding fiscal responsibility and promoting bipartisan consensus. Toward the end of his time in office, he sounded the alarm about his party’s move further left, as well as the partisan gridlock in Congress.

Following His Father’s Example

His father, William Lipinski, was also a Democratic congressman. In William Lipinski’s biography on the House’s website, he was described as a Democratic Party loyalist, although one unafraid to break from the party line when his morals told him to do so.

For example, he voted for Republican President Ronald Reagan’s plan to help in the fight socialist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

“Tip O’Neil [the Democratic Speaker of the House at the time] came up to my father on the House floor and talked to him about that. Tip wasn’t happy. But my father just believed in the fight against communism and thought it was the right thing to do.

“My father stood up for what he believed in, no matter what it was,” Lipinski said.

Lipinski, 54, is of Polish descent and was raised Catholic in the southwest of Chicago. That’s part of congressional District 3, which his father represented for over 20 years.

Lipinski studied engineering at Northwestern University and Stanford University.

When pursuing his Ph.D. in political science at Duke University, he came across the book “Democracy in America,” (“De La Démocratie en Amérique”) by Alexis de Tocqueville, which he said had a great influence on his political understanding.

“One of the most important things [Tocqueville] pointed out, it is the morals of the American people that made the country special and different. I believe that very much to be true.

“We have enjoyed so many freedoms in the United States. If everyone truly lived out their freedom as far as they could, this country would be in chaos. People’s morality helps to constrain what they do and to teach them to work well with other people,” Lipinski said.

His move into the field of politics was somewhat unexpected in 2004.

His father, after winning the Democratic primary, abruptly retired and had Lipinski, then a young professor at the University of Tennessee, replace him on the ballot. It was a controversial move.

Running in a solidly Democratic district, Lipinski easily defeated his Republican opponent. Soon, he departed for Washington, D.C., for his first term with a goal to “take care of my constituents and do what I can do to make their everyday lives better.”

Little did he expect the issue of abortions to figure so prominently in his career.

Pro-life Democrats Dwindle in Congress

Pro-life Democrats were already a minority within the party when Lipinski got to the Capitol, but there were still a good number of them, about 60.

Some, like Lipinski, would vote pro-life on any abortion-related legislation, while the others narrowly focused on the federally funded abortions. Many represented Catholic rust-belt districts and conservative-leaning districts in the South.

When joining forces with pro-life Republicans, they played a strong role in guarding pro-life laws. Their power was evident when the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) fought its way through the House.

Lipinski, along with other pro-life Democrats, considered the bill short of restrictions on federally funded abortions and demanded an amendment include those restrictions. As a compromise, President Barack Obama agreed to issue an executive order to ban federally funded abortions.

Bart Stupak, who led the congressional pro-life Democrats at the time, and dozens of others in the coalition, switched to support Obamacare. It passed the House with a close 219–212 vote.
But Lipinski voted against it, along with some 30 other pro-life Democrats.

“People have asked me, ‘If it was good enough for Stupak, why wasn’t it good enough for you?’” Lipinski told The Chicago Tribune at the time. “The [executive] order doesn’t trump the law.” He also felt Obamacare was financially unsustainable.

The Obamacare vote turned out to be a game-changer for the pro-life Democrats in Congress.
In the midterm election, some pro-life groups pulled support from pro-life Democrats who voted for Obamacare and backed their Republican challengers instead.

When the new Congress convened in January 2011, the number of pro-life Democrats was cut in half.

Overall, Democrats lost more than 60 seats. The number of pro-life Democrats dwindled more every couple years, according to an article by Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University.

In 2012, it dropped to less than 10. In 2014, most had retired or lost reelection.

In 2016, only two solidly pro-life Democrats were left: Lipinski and Collin Peterson, a veteran congressman who represented a large, rural district in western Minnesota.

About half the time, they were joined by Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas.

Under Pressure

Over the years, he saw many pro-life Democrats turn Republican because they could no longer live with the party’s position on abortion. But Lipinski believed he could continue on and reconcile the two.
In the 2018 Democratic primary, Lipinski almost lost to Marie Newman, a more progressive Democratic candidate who was pro-choice. He survived the challenge by a narrow margin of 2 percent.

Planned Parenthood had spent about $100,000 on campaigns against Lipinski, the second highest amount it had spent against any candidate that year.

In the 2020 Democratic primary, Newman again challenged Lipinski. She was endorsed by prominent party members including Obama, Joe Biden, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Amid the hotly contested race, Lipinski signed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold a Louisiana abortion law and reconsider Roe v. Wade.

He and Peterson were the only two Democrats who signed the brief, along with over 200 Republicans from both the House and Senate.

“I have always believed in protecting the lives of the unborn, and I was not going to change on that, even though it got more difficult politically,” he said.

Pro-abortion groups rallied outside his local office in Lockport, Illinois.

Epoch Times Photo
Members of Students for Life of America hold baskets of baby socks representing abortions alongside abortion rights activists from NARAL Pro-Choice America as they demonstrate outside of Rep. Dan Lipinski’s office in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

NARAL Pro-Choice America spent nearly $220,000 on campaigns supporting Newman, the largest amount it spent for any candidate in this election cycle.

Lipinski lost the primary to Newman by a margin of 2.5 percent, or about 2,800 votes. Newman commented on her victory in a New York Times interview: “[Lipinski] was not only out of step with the district, but really out of step with the Democratic platform. So that’s really kind of the No.1 reason that I ran, and why I won.”

In his concession speech, Lipinski said: “There is one issue that loomed especially large in this campaign: the fact that I am pro-life. I was pilloried in millions of dollars of TV ads and mailers because of this. I was shunned by many of my colleagues and other Democratic Party members and operators.

“The pressure in the Democratic Party on the life issue has never been as great as it is now. Over the years, I have watched many other politicians succumb to the pressure and change their position on this issue.

“I can never give up protecting the most vulnerable human beings in the world simply to win an election. My faith teaches, and the Democratic Party preaches, that we should serve everyone, especially the most vulnerable.”

The night of defeat was tough, Lipinski said. He spent most of it praying. “I pray for strength to accept the loss and to move on, and for guidance in what to do next,” he said.
“The next day, people started reaching out to me, thanking me, congratulating me on standing for what I believe in. … I knew I had done the right thing.”

Peterson, the other solid pro-life Democrat in Congress, survived the primary, but was later defeated in the general election by his Republican opponent Michelle Fischbach. A couple of House Democrats are left who sometimes support the pro-life agenda.

Single-Party Issue

Lipinski does not think the number of pro-life Democrats in Congress truly represents the number of pro-life Democratic voters in the nation.

About three in ten Democrats don’t agree with their party’s positions on abortion, a recent Pew Research survey finds.

“There are almost no pro-life Democrat members of Congress because so much money is spent by NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations to defeat pro-life Democrats.” Lipinski said.

On the other hand, he thinks that pro-life groups should support more Democratic candidates, instead of focusing only on Republican candidates. It will hurt pro-life voters in the long run, he said, when the life issue becomes a sole Republican issue.

“Once any issue becomes a single-party issue, it’s much easier for that party to ignore that issue,” Lipinski said.

Reaching Across the Aisle

Over Lipinski’s terms, the two parties in Congress have increasingly polarized in general, he said, which has led to partisan bickering, inactivity, and a failure to address the key issues facing America.

In February 2012, when the moderate Republican senator Olympia Snowe announced she would not to seek reelection after 40 years of public service due to Senate dysfunction, it was seen by many as a sign that congressional gridlock has reached a historic intensity.

Epoch Times Photo
Rep. Dan Lipinski (2nd R) and fellow Democratic members of Congress hold a news conference to voice their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 10, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Lipinski worked to promote bipartisan consensus through the Blue Dog Coalition and Problem Solvers Caucus. The Blue Dogs, about two dozen moderate Democrats, describe themselves as pursuing fiscally responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines to get things done.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, which was founded about four years ago, is a bipartisan coalition comprised of around 50 members equally divided among Democrats and Republicans, with a goal to forge bipartisan cooperation on key policy issues.

Lipinski often met with his colleagues in the caucus at 9 p.m., when many instead took a break from their daily obligations. Sometimes their discussions went late into the night, and Lipinski had to run to Union Station to catch the last train to get back to his apartment.

In July 2017, Lipinski and fellow caucus members worked out a bipartisan agreement that would improve Obamacare by lowering premiums and stabilizing the individual healthcare market.

In January 2018, amid the ongoing budget impasse related to immigration policy and border security, they came up with a bipartisan agreement. It would grant citizenship to existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients while putting in place policies to prevent future illegal immigration.

“But in the end, despite our agreement, we could not get legislation on either of these issues to the floor,” Lipinski said during his farewell speech on the house floor on Dec. 8.

“We had good policy for our nation, which probably could have gotten a majority in the House to pass it and possibly been able to get through the Senate with bipartisan support. We got there by bringing our constituents’ ideas and interest to table, debating, deliberating, forging a compromise, but the rules did not give us an avenue to bring this agreement to the House.”

Lipinski said in the farewell speech that both rules and behaviors needed to be changed for the Congress to fulfill its legislative intended obligations.

“I’m hopeful that those changes will occur, and the Problem Solvers Caucus will be successful in the next couple of weeks, and in the next Congress, because the American people need it.”

After spending half of his farewell speech on congressional gridlock and ways to fix it, he then thanked his local and D.C. staffers for their hard work and listed some of the key laws he helped passed, including American Manufacturing Competitiveness Act, Small Aircraft Revitalization Act, and National Science Foundation Reauthorization Act.

Before he left office, Lipinski also warned about the direction of the Democratic Party. “The Democratic Party has traditionally been the party of the working class. I’m concerned that the party has gotten away from that in recent years,” he told The Epoch Times.

“I hope Joe Biden will be able to bring the party back to the focus on working class Americans and also on the need to work together with Republicans and get something done.”

Looking Forward

After Congress, Lipinski plans to work for a human rights organization, the name of which he declined to disclose. Also, he is thinking of writing a book based on a commencement speech he gave at a private Catholic University in Ave Maria, Florida.

He told the graduates: “We live in a political system where there are only two major parties. If you are going to run for most offices, you need to be a member of one of these parties. In most elections, if you are going to vote you have to choose a candidate in one of these two parties.

“You need to make this choice. I am not going to tell you that there is a correct answer.

“But as a Catholic there is a much more important choice you must make. Are you going to hold fast to your Catholic beliefs, or are you going to follow the world and make a political party your religion? If you really want to change the world, you must choose to be Catholic, and carry Jesus into the public square.

“Graduates, as you leave college, pray for that faith and [carry the Lord] everywhere with hope and without fear.”