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License to Live By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 14, 1999


SEA TURTLES, LARGE-MOUTH BASS, and bottlenose dolphins are all featured on specialty license plates in Florida. So are more than a dozen colleges and universities and eleven professional-sports teams. At last count, the sunshine state offered 43 different specialty plates, which cost drivers twenty dollars more than the generic kind, with proceeds going to a specified cause. The legislature and governor routinely authorize such plates without controversy—that is, until activists proposed a design depicting child-drawn sketches of a boy and a girl, and a crayon-scrawled caption, "Choose life."

Democrats, joined by NOW and the ACLU, complain that by issuing such plates, Florida would be taking sides in a contentious political debate. But that charge, which is negated by a legal process that lets proponents of any cause propose their own plate, presupposes an important question: are the words "Choose life" political? Not more so than "Conserve Wildlife" or "Invest in Children," which already adorn Florida plates. It is not as if advocates had recommended "Ban Abortion Now." "Choose life"—which will fund adoption agencies, not anti-abortion groups—assumes the legality of abortion without commenting on the political questions surrounding it. It urges only that expecting mothers, presented with the choice to have an abortion, decline it. For abortion-rights defenders, who insist they have no affection for abortion (and often claim to be "personally opposed" to it), that sentiment should be innocuous.

But it isn’t, according to Florida’s congressional Democrats, who unanimously oppose the "Choose life" plate. "People have died over this issue," state Senator Patsy Kurth gravely cautions. "When this license tag becomes law and it goes on the backs of cars . . . I believe it is going to be the first license tag that is going to add to the road rage that is out there." State Rep. Elaine Bloom sounds the same alarm, ominously predicting during the "Choose life" debate that "This tiny spark on the hallowed floors of the House is nothing compared to the road rage you’re going to see" when the motto hits the streets.

Less tame bumper stickers—from both sides of the debate—have been on American autos for 25 years, without causing much in the way of freeway shootings. The claim that "Choose life" will incite riots at stoplights may make for effective demagoguery, but that’s about it. Democratic state Senator Skip Campbell attempted a different sort of fear-mongering, suggesting that skinheads could take a cue from pro-lifers, and create a "Be a Nazi" license plate. The comparison is as insulting as it is preposterous, and like the other arguments against the "Choose life" tag, disingenuous.

"Choose life" may lack the political connotations its opponents decry, but it unambiguously, if gently, argues against getting an abortion and for giving birth—the choice "pro-choice" activists are loath to support. The ACLU, which regularly defends the free expression of Klansmen and pornographers, is less enthusiastic about the sort of expression that might prevent abortions. In a letter to then-Governor Lawton Chiles, urging him to veto the license plates, it warned that the proceeds could "end up in the hands of not merely adoption agencies, but ‘pro-life counseling’ " groups. It fears not that abortions might become illegal, but that women might be persuaded not to get them.

"This is not only about a slogan," insists Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat from West Palm Beach. "This is about whether this license plate begins the slow death of the right to choose for women in this state." That’s a bit histrionic, but actually not far off the mark. "Choose life" does not explicitly challenge the "right" to abortion, but emphasizes a cultural rejection of its exercise—a trend that has its professional champions running scared. Political shifts follow social ones. Abortion advocates realize that if the American public starts to view abortion as not just another "medical procedure," and unborn children as something more than "fetuses" or "products of conception," their cause is in jeopardy. If too many people start choosing life, there will be little need or tolerance for the culture of death.

Desperate movements resort to desperate measures, which, in the case of Florida’s abortion-rights proponents, means obstructing legislation that will funnel upwards of $600,000 to scared, needy, usually young, pregnant women. It also means concocting outlandish accusations rather than allowing the insidious idea to permeate the culture that crisis pregnancies need not end in abortion. Former Governor Lawton Chiles accepted the ACLU’s recommendation and vetoed the specialty-plate legislation last year, but the state legislature has passed it again, and Chiles’ successor, Republican Jeb Bush, is set to sign it into law. When he does, unborn children in Florida will finally enjoy a status somewhat closer to that of large-mouth bass and bottlenose dolphins.


Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.


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