RICHMOND, Va. -- Abortion rights advocates have been unable to halt the "Choose Life" license plate variations in nearly two dozen states, so now they're working to balance the bumper debate.
Activists are pushing a "Trust Women/Protect Choice" license plate in Virginia, which would become the fourth state to offer a pro-choice plate and the first to require legislative approval for it. Supporters have threatened to sue if lawmakers don't give drivers the option.
"We really don't feel like a license plate is the place to be promoting a political agenda," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. "However, the pro-choice community feels like they're being taken on by the anti-choice side with this license plate, and we feel like we need to get involved."
Opponents, including Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, both Republicans, say they object to the idea of diverting money from plate fees to Planned Parenthood offices — not necessarily the plates themselves.
A state Senate committee heard testimony on the bill Thursday and could vote on it this week. The full legislature's approval and the governor's signature are needed for the plates to be sold.
Last year, Virginia became the 23rd state to approve the "Choose Life" plate. The plates are expected to be on the roads in Massachusetts, Delaware and North Dakota by the end of March, and efforts are under way in a dozen other states to get them approved, said Russ Amerling, a coordinator for the Florida-based Choose Life Inc., which promotes the plates.
More than 520,000 of the plates have been sold nationwide since 2000, raising more than $11 million for pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, adoption services and maternity homes.
Those on the other side of the debate have not mounted a coordinated response. Even in states where the plates are offered, they haven't sold well, though at least 400 people have signed up to buy the pro-choice plates in Virginia.
Hawaii was first with a "Respect Choice" decal for plates in 2003, but lack of interest is threatening to halt its availability. A "Pro-family, Pro-choice" plate is available in Montana, and Pennsylvania has a plate labeled "Planned Parenthood of PA." However, only 22 of those are active.
Those states don't require the legislature's approval. The plates are handled administratively and can be sold as long as they meet certain requirements.
Virginia's proposed plate would generate money for the state's eight Planned Parenthood health care centers, which provide free pregnancy tests, contraception, gynecological exams, cancer screenings and other services for about 30,000 people each year.
That is likely to be a source of contention for Republicans, who control the House of Delegates and in recent years have stripped the organization of state funding other than Medicaid reimbursements because Planned Parenthood provides abortions. The organization says the money from any license plate sales — $15 per plate after the first 1,000 are sold — would not be used for abortions.
"I expect that's the hurdle," said Mr. Cuccinelli, who led the fight against the organization as a legislator. "It isn't the plate; it's where the money goes."
However, supporters say Virginia has no choice but to allow a pro-choice plate after it offered a "Choose Life" plate — because doing otherwise would be unconstitutional.
The 4th U.S. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has twice ruled that the government cannot unreasonably censor or favor one viewpoint on specialty plates because they constitute a public forum.
"The General Assembly has stepped into a legal morass now," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, Northern Virginia Democrat, who is sponsoring one of two bills to establish the plate. "You can't have just one point of view represented on license plates. You have to have both."
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