Abortion foes want political car plate

But backers of “Choose Life” slogan face opposition in the state legislature.
Monday, August 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:32 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Denied in the Capitol, some abortion foes are taking advantage of a relatively new state law to try to create a “Choose Life” license plate without needing approval of the full legislature or the governor.

The slogan is one of several proposed specialty plates submitted to the Department of Revenue by nonprofit groups willing to fork over $5,000 and line up the first 200 purchasers of the plates.

So far, the potential “Choose Life” license plate has moved quietly through the administrative process, garnering almost no public response. Yet that is not likely to last.

Similar license plates have sparked vigorous debates, even lawsuits, in other states. And Missouri remains an abortion battleground, even though its elected politicians predominantly promote themselves as “pro-life.”

Indeed, Missouri legislators have tried to do something similar for years.

In 1999, a bipartisan majority opposed to abortion rights passed two bills that would have created “Respect Life” license plates available to anyone who donated $25 to the “Missouri Alternatives to Abortion Support Fund.” But Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, an abortion-rights supporter, vetoed the bills.

Since then, lawmakers have proposed 11 bills, including several this year, to create a “Respect Life” license plate. All have failed, as have several backed by abortion-rights supporters that would have created a “Freedom Choice” license plate.

Noting the legislature’s failure, Kevin Roach, an economics student at Washington University in St. Louis, created his own nonprofit entity in February to champion the “Choose Life” cause.

The “Choose Life” slogan essentially is the abortion equivalent of a fast-food franchise, where the same product is promoted by local owners nationwide. The movement started in Florida several years ago, and the plates are now in a dozen states, said Russ Amerling, treasurer and publicity coordinator for the national group.

But federal courts struck down the plates in Tennessee and South Carolina as an unconstitutional promotion of only one side of the abortion debate. A federal appeals court in Louisiana took a different tack, ruling that abortion rights advocates had no standing to sue that state over the plates. Other states, including New Jersey, have denied applications for the plates because of their advocacy message.

Besides paying a state licensing fee, the specialty plates require a donation to a particular nonprofit group. In this case, the money would be used for crisis pregnancy centers and adoption agencies.

Supporters could have picked a phrase like “Choose Adoption.” But the bottom line is that “Choose Life” sells better — appealing to people who oppose abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia, Amerling said.

“I think that the license plate really does accomplish two things,” said Roach, 23, of Ballwin. “It allows for the donors to literally label themselves pro-life and say, ‘I’m supporting the unborn,’ and secondly, it sets up a great financial support system for all these under-funded agencies around the state.”

Roach is optimistic the plate will be approved for Missouri vehicles, joining a list of 164 other specialty license plates.

But the realities of Missouri politics weigh against that.

The 2004 law that set up the administrative application process for specialty plates still requires some legislative involvement. The plates must win unanimous approval from the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight.

That means any one committee member can derail the “Choose Life” plate. And the law also allows any five House members or two senators — regardless of whether they are on the committee — to sign a petition blocking the plate.

At least one member of the transportation committee, Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, already has pledged to vote against the plate, denying it the needed unanimous approval.

Committee member Rep. Mike Daus, D-St. Louis, said he probably also would oppose any effort to create a license plate against abortion rights if it is not balanced by a plate for abortion rights.

“I think we’re making a big mistake if we allow one group to have their plate and not another,” Daus said.

But committee co-chairman Sen. Jon Dolan, a supporter of an anti-abortion plate, said he probably would oppose any effort to couple it with an abortion-rights plate.

“If we’re going to have both, I’d just as soon as have neither,” said Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis.

At this point, neither seems more likely — unless the legislature’s anti-abortion majority can pass a promotional license plate through the traditional legislative process.

The alternative, in Dolan’s words: “If you want to make a political statement, get a bumper sticker.”

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