Monday, July 03, 2006

"Choose Life" License Plates Acceptable

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court not to review a lower court decision and thereby to allow Tennessee "Choose Life" specialty license plates to become a reality has been widely criticized by those on the "pro-choice" side of the abortion debate. Such criticisms, both of the original legislation creating the program and the decision of the court, have emphasized two basic arguments: 1) the offering uses state issued license plates to promote a political viewpoint and doesn't provide an equal opportunity for the other side; and 2) the funds are in part provided to a pro-life organization. Neither of those arguments is persuasive.

Except for those who look for political messages before anything else, the message on the plate is a social, not a political, one. In fact, the phrase on the plate could be described as pro-choice -- as indicated by the first word. Given the word "choose," it stretches credulity to call the plate "anti-choice." The plate only encourages those who have a decision to decide in a certain direction. Normally, the opposite of choosing life would be choosing death, but those who call themselves pro-choice can not really regard the plate as making that claim as a political statement. It is undebatable that the result of a successful pregnancy is a living baby. However, hardly anyone in the pro-choice camp regards the result of an abortion to be death. They regard the end of an abortion to be the excision of an inconvenient mass of tissue. As a result, the suggestion by the plate is really a social one without political implications for the abortion debate, unless pro-choice groups want to deny core principles and admit what some pro-lifers have claimed -- that pro-choice groups don't really favor choice; they favor abortion.

As for the claim that there should be a pro-choice tag, it can be noted that offering "Choose Choice" plates would not be an equal alternative, as the term "pro-choice" is a political term, not a social one. The phrasing "choose choice" is awkward, at best, but what is the alternative? Clearly, "Choose Death" is not a choice that would be favored by the pro-choice crowd. Anything that conveys "rights language" makes an overtly political statement. It may not seem fair, but given that pro-choice groups are essentially making a political argument about the relative rights of women and what they regard as women's property, it is not easy to conceive of any message that they could deliver as a social and not a political one.

As to the funds, they are not, as some have claimed, going toward the delivery of an anti-abortion political message. Rather, they are going to organizations that provide adoption and other services designed to assist pregnant women -- a cause, ironically, that pro-choice groups claim is ignored by those who would limit choice (thus, the funds go toward remedying a problem about which pro-choice advocates claim to have a concern). Criticisms have also claimed that one of the primary beneficiaries of the program, New Life Resources, is affiliated with Tennessee Right to Life. Even if that is true, it is being made clear that New Life Resources only provides services to pregnant women and does not involve itself in political debate. Once again, pro-choice groups cannot oppose this without creating problems for themselves. For years, Planned Parenthood, which frequently recommends that its clients choose to have an abortion, has managed to overcome critics and retain access to funding from government and from large private community funding resources, United Way in particular, by emphasizing to legislators and to donors that none of the funds received through those avenues are used to provide abortion counseling or services or to fund political activity. Those arguments, in order to be honest, require a careful segregation of the way that funds are used. There is no reason to think that funds received from the "choose life" program cannot be similarly earmarked specifically for the permissible services. Goodness knows that there is sufficient need.

An argument can be made that the entire specialty plate program, which benefits multiple causes, including higher education, is illegitimate. However, as long as Tennessee offers such programs, there is no reason why a specialty plate with funds earmarked for helping women who choose to allow their babies to be born should be opposed.


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