'Choose Life' Car Tags Spark Debate
By Erin Madigan, Staff Writer
Though supporters say "Choose Life" is not a political message and is intended to promote adoption, the plates have been challenged by abortion rights groups who've gone to court to try to block them.
Many states sell license plates that advertise causes. For example, New Hampshire's so-called "moose plate" promotes environmental conservation. Virginia motorists can display a tag supporting the National Rifle Association. Tens of thousands of car owners have plates that tout their alma mater.
So state legislators and motorists who favor "Choose Life" plates don't consider them any more controversial than a tag bearing a university coat-of-arms.
Many others disagree, including Kansas Republican Gov. Bill Graves.
"License plates should not be used as moving billboards for editorial comment," Graves said last April in vetoing a bill that would have authorized the plates in the Jayhawk State.
However, Graves' term ends in January, and Ben Bauman, the governor's spokesman, said the bill will likely be reintroduced.
James Finnegan, an Illinois private citizen who's spearheading efforts to get the plates approved there, denied that the phrase "Choose Life" is political.
"(The message) doesn't touch on abortion in any way. There's nothing being used to overthrow Roe v. Wade or telling a woman she can't have an abortion," he said.
Attorney Barry Silver takes an opposing view. Silver is fighting the plates in Florida on behalf of the National Organization for Women, and claims "Choose Life" supporters are being disingenuous.
"Anybody that's ever read a newspaper knows that phrase is inextricably linked with the anti-abortion movement. If they cared one iota about adoption they'd have picked, Choose Adoption,' but they didn't," Silver said. "The only thing they're interested in adopting is an anti-choice sentiment in the state of Florida."
The "Choose Life" plates first appeared in Florida in 1999. Sales there have generated more than $1 million for non-profit adoption organizations, but those that counsel abortion as an option for pregnant women are ineligible for the funds.
Melissa Savage, a National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) policy analyst, said legislators in 15 states introduced "Choose Life" plate legislation this year.
New Hampshire Republican state Rep. Daniel Itse is prime sponsor of the legislation in that state. His bill never reached the floor this year, but he plans to reintroduce it in 2003 and expects speedy approval. Calling New Hampshire a "traditionally pro-life state," Itse anticipates little opposition to the plates.
"The only opposition I heard about was NOW down in Florida, which just shows their true colors. The idea of promoting adoption was offensive to them," Itse said.
As more and more state legislatures authorize the plates, the controversy is moving into the the courts.
Silver's lawsuit in Florida contends that the plates violate the Constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state. A Louisiana lawsuit filed by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, a legal advocacy group based in New York City also challenges the constitutionality of the plates. Last month, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia denied a motion that would have kept Louisiana from issuing the plates, but the high court has not yet decided whether it will hear the case.
"These plates are a form of government sponsored, anti-choice propaganda that must be stopped," said Simon Heller, CRLP's lead counsel on the case.
In South Carolina, the plates have been approved but are not yet available to the public. The state is tied up in a lawsuit with Planned Parenthood of South Carolina, which also says the plates violate the Constitution. A federal judge has halted issuance of the plates there pending trial.
After the success of the plates in Florida, Choose-Life Inc. was organized to help promote the idea in other states.
"We did it in Florida and it was our goal to get it done there, but it became a catalyst in other states," said Russ Amerling, publicity coordinator for Choose-Life Inc.
The secular, non-profit organization is funded through private donations and the sale of promotional products like neckties, t-shirts and license plate holders that bear the "Choose Life" logo, according to Amerling. He said those who disagree should apply for a plate of their own.
"(Opposing groups) have just as much right to have a plate as we do, as long as they go through the administrative process we did," he said.