License to Lie

Eleanor J. Bader

Popular "Choose Life" license plates raise millions for crisis pregnancy centers and other anti-choice organizations. And in Florida, the funds can only be given to women who are willing to give their children up for adoption.

According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the first vanity plate was produced in 1931 at the request of a Pennsylvania motorist who wanted his initials on the tag. In the 77 years since, specialized plates have become big business, with local governments and advocacy groups selling them to benefit causes from state parks, space exploration, and violence prevention to public education and endangered wildlife.

By the mid-1990's anti-abortion activists wanted in on the trend. Randy Harris, a virulently anti-choice county commissioner from Ocala, Florida, is considered the mastermind of the idea to have state DMVs collect funds to promote adoption over abortion. His plan was simple — have the state agency sell "Choose Life" tags for $22 above the regular cost of a license plate. The extra money would then go to non-profit adoption agencies, so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers, and maternity homes with the sole purpose of encouraging the unhappily pregnant to put their progeny up for adoption.

Harris galvanized supporters by arguing that since only one percent of women deemed "abortion vulnerable" by CPCs gave their babies to adoptive families, more needed to be done to promote this option. And doing more, he reasoned, required money for the medical care, shelter, food and living expenses of those giving birth. How simple it would be, he cajoled, if people bought vanity tags to promote the cause.

Harris' three-year campaign was victorious and Florida's then-governor, Jeb Bush, authorized the plates in 1999. By 2000 bright yellow tags with a childlike drawing of a boy and girl — the female is distinguished by longer hair and a red bow atop her head — and a Choose Life message were selling like hotcakes. By the end of 2007, the state had raised $5.5 million and the idea of selling anti-abortion tags had spread to 17 states; in less than eight years, more than $8.4 million was collected for anti-abortion adoption centers and explicitly Christian CPCs across the country.

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No comparable pro-choice plates exist — which clearly pleases anti-abortionists. At the same time, Florida anti-choicers acknowledge that the tags have not been as effective in promoting adoption as Harris originally expected. While figures for the number of babies placed for adoption pre-and-post tags are unavailable, Russ Amerling, Publicity Coordinator of Choose Life, Inc., a national network established to promote the plates and help anti-abortion activists bring them to their states, admits that the program has hit numerous bureaucratic roadblocks.

"The problem," Amerling begins, "is not the exclusive focus on adoption; it's the distribution of funds." Indeed, money collected by the DMV has been accumulating far faster than it is being spent. "In Marion County, we get $30,000 a year which is distributed to qualified agencies that promote, support or enhance adoption services," Amerling continues. "There is no paperwork, no contract signing. The county auditor goes in every year and confirms that the money is being used in accordance with the statute. That's it. In other counties it's not like that. Many county commissioners don't distribute the money because there is so much red tape that agencies don't even apply for it. It's too burdensome. The funds are not being spent because barriers are being erected that keep it from being spent."

This means that the money raised by Florida's sale of Choose Life license plates isn't doing what its promoters say it is — helping women place their babies with adoptive families. Instead, the funds — approximately $200,000 according to — languish in state bank accounts.

Sydna Masse, a former Focus on the Family staffer and founder of the anti-abortion counseling group, Ramah International, says that this outcome was predictable. Unlike Amerling, who champions Florida's adoption-only bent, Masse believes that "the state made eligibility for funding too restrictive. It's not for any woman choosing life. It's only for women choosing adoption." Since most women coming into a CPC want to keep their babies or have an abortion — not give them away — she believes that agencies that might be eligible for funding see no point in applying since they know they'll rarely be able to use it. She is also perplexed by Choose Life Inc.'s refusal to push for a loosening of the rules. At the same time, she is heartened that anti-abortionists in other states have learned from Florida's errors.

Masse hails Mississippi as the country's most successful license tag program. Terri Herring of the Pro-Life America Network (PLAN) for Mississippi says that her group used Florida as a model but wanted to fund more than just adoption. While the 33 agencies currently funded by tag revenue — over $1 million has been raised since 2002 — encourage women to relinquish their babies, they also fund services for those who want to keep their offspring.

Janet Thomas of Choose Life, Mississippi oversees the quarterly distribution of funds to qualifying groups and says that in the fourth quarter of 2007 grants ranged from a low of $320 to $4,575. This money was used to promote adoption, says Thomas, "as well as for women who needed pampers and baby clothes. It was also used for pregnancy tests, sonograms, or whatever else a pregnancy center wanted to use it for including outreach on abstinence or that type of thing."

Thanks to a sophisticated "License to Live" ad campaign on television and in statewide print media, Mississippi tag sales remain brisk.

For their part, pro-choice legal challenges to the Choose Life tags — including a 2005 Supreme Court petition that the Court rejected — have been largely unsuccessful. Although a 2004 Circuit Court decision found that having a Choose Life tag violated the First Amendment unless pro-choice tags were available, other Circuit Courts have sided with the antis. An Oklahoma case, brought by the Oklahoma Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice Education Fund (ORC), will be argued and decided in late 2008. Arguments that money is going to overtly religious groups with an overtly religious agenda have similarly fallen flat.

Janet Crepps, Deputy Director of Domestic Legal Programs at the Center for Reproductive Rights, is representing ORC and argues that the tags are objectionable on multiple levels. First, she says, is the issue of the state favoring one political viewpoint over another. "If they're going to give anyone access to the license plate forum, they should give access to all viewpoints."

Then there's the question of funding, and where the money collected by the state actually goes. "Crisis Pregnancy Centers have a history of providing women with biased information, and in some instances, misleading women about their pregnancy choices," Crepps continues. "No public funds should go to CPCs for any reason. It's a misuse of public money to fund organizations that are both religious and political. It's particularly outrageous that states give money to CPCs when these same states often refuse to provide comprehensive sex education or to provide adequate funding for family planning services."

These criticisms don't faze Russ Amerling or his Choose Life, Inc. colleagues. "We've learned from Florida and have now drafted a model bill," he says. "The ideal is to send money collected by the sale of tags directly to a non-profit Choose Life group, sidestepping county government altogether. That agency can then distribute funds to help abortion-vulnerable women choose adoption."

Numerous states have rejected the Choose Life tags and even in states where they've been approved, sales are often slow. Connecticut, for example, has sold only 550; Hawaii just 672; and Indiana 804. But the issue isn't going away any time soon: bills to authorize their sale are pending in six state legislatures and the issue is being litigated in five others.

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