A New Kind of Abortion War

Stealth Pro-Life Campaign Erodes Reproductive Rights

In Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina, the war of the charged words is being waged on the backs of cars. The four states have approved "Choose Life" license plates, which deliver the anti-abortion message and generate money for anti-abortion groups. In Louisiana, which along with South Carolina and Alabama has temporarily halted production of the license plates until legal challenges have been settled, the plates bear the picture of a pelican carrying a blanketed baby.

It's difficult to take a stand against a blanketed baby and its life-supporting message, which Florida governor Jeb Bush has called "a very innocuous statement that most people will agree with." Yet some are objecting to the use of a government branch for partisan fundraising. In Florida, which in 1999 became the first state to introduce the "Choose Life" licenses, the National Organization of Women sued over the plates, which have already raised more than $668,280 for "crisis pregnancy centers" that counsel women not to have abortions.

Pro-choice groups point to the political imbalance of the arrangement. In South Carolina, the local Planned Parenthood affiliate asked that the state issue "Choose Choice" plates to counter the Choose Life message, though a judge denied the request. "This is the only instance where the government funnels money to one side of a very divisive debate," says Simon Heller, director of the domestic program for the Manhattan-based Center for Reproductive Law & Policy.

And if some would downplay the significance of the license plate policies of a mere four conservative states, three of which are weighing legal arguments against them, Heller warns against such complacency. "This is where it starts," he says. "But eventually these things become accepted as the norm in our culture. The risk is that this will spread very widely around the country and you have this government-sponsored propaganda everywhere."

Judging from the National Right to Life Committee's Web site, Heller's concerns are valid. After a Florida court dismissed the suit against the plates in late November, Jeanne Gill posted this message: "We can really start spreading the word about the 'Choose Life' license plate. We only have 46 more states to go."

Back in Washington, left and right are gearing up for a bitter fight over other norms that set the country's reproductive tone. Discussions have already begun about the reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which tried to limit out-of-wedlock births by giving financial rewards to states that keep their unmarried birth rates down, promoting sexual abstinence, and cutting back assistance to welfare recipients once their families reach a certain size. In congressional hearings about the reauthorization held earlier this year, the Heritage Foundation's Patrick Fagan pleaded for even more marriage incentives, blaming illegitimacy and divorce for everything from suicide to a diminished sense of masculinity and femininity in teens.

"The thinking and culture behind today's federal social programs must be made more marriage-friendly," said Fagan, who suggested creating an Office of Marriage Initiatives and instituting marriage bonuses for the poor. But for their part, reproductive rights advocates find the marriage enticement approach both coercive and ineffective.

"It's just such an incredible red herring," says Wendy Chavkin, professor of public health and OB-GYN at Columbia University. "The issue is that people are poor. If what you want is to have children with stable homes, then you need to provide their parents with living wages. Having two unemployed or two starvation-wage people get married is not going to help the kid."

The new welfare reform bill, which is scheduled for more hearings this spring, is also expected to increase funding for programs that omit information about contraception and abortion and teach that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human activity." While the 1996 bill set aside $50 million in federal funding for such abstinence-only education annually, the 2002 version is expected to ask for upward of $135 million per year.

Even with the impending budget cuts, abstinence proponents can expect Washington to smile on them in the coming months. Bush, an enthusiastic supporter of abstinence, will likely approve the increased spending. Abstinence advocates hope the surge of money will also work to give this approach the moral high ground, quietly shifting it from the margins to the mainstream.

For the most part, pro-choice groups have been playing catch-up, putting out fires rather than igniting their own public relations offensives. But in this state, they have made some use of the right's lessons in spin. New York State legislators, who have been unable to pass a bill mandating insurance coverage for contraception in the past, are for the first time optimistic about the passage of a "pill bill" this year. The changing fortunes of the Women's Health and Wellness Act can mostly be attributed to proponents' repackaging their message along with proposals requiring screening for breast and cervical cancer.

"If this were a stand-alone contraceptive coverage issue, there's no way it would pass," acknowledges Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL-NY. "It's much easier if you combine it with a bunch of women's health issues. It also humanizes us."

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