‘Choose Life’ license plates draw mixed reactions

Iowa license plate debate
Todd Pettys, Associate Dean for Faculty at the University of Iowa Law School, doesn’t see any legal issue with the process laid out by the Iowa DOT. — photo by Denise Krebs

Iowa Right to Life (IRTL) recently announced that their application to have license plates with a “Choose Life” emblem — offered to the public for a $25 fee — had been approved by the Iowa Department of Transportation. The decision has been met with mixed reactions from members of the Iowa City community.

IRTL is a non-profit organization that has been working to get a “pro-life” message offered on Iowa license plates since 2000. Executive Director Jenifer Bowen says that over the last 13 years, the group’s main obstacle has been the state legislature. In order to be allowed to funnel money from the sale of state-issued license plates to pregnancy centers or maternity shelters as they wished, Iowa law requires that the group get a bill approved by the legislature. IRTL was never able to do so, Bowen says.

In 2012, however, IRTL was made aware of the fact that they could fill out an application with the DOT directly. As long as they could obtain 500 pre-registrations for “Choose Life” license plates, this method would allow them to circumvent the legislature entirely. The money raised from the plates, however, would not go to the sorts of maternity-based groups IRTL had previously hoped to support. “The extra $25, or $5 each year after that goes towards roads, and the repair of roads in Iowa,” Bowen said.

Todd Pettys, Associate Dean for Faculty at the University of Iowa Law School, doesn’t see any legal issue with the process laid out by the Iowa DOT.

“I don’t deal with ethical questions, I deal with legal questions and what the First Amendment says, and the First Amendment, to my mind, doesn’t pose any obstacles to someone going to the government and asking them to include “Choose Life” among the array of messages that a person can choose from when getting a license plate,” Associate Dean Pettys said.

The decision to offer these specialty license plates has disappointed some, including Raquel Baker, vice chair of the board of directors at Iowa City’s Emma Goldman Clinic.

“I was disappointed to see that Iowa, which really has quite progressive roots, would make such a decision without putting the other side’s viewpoint on the table as well. It’s not just any other kind of specialty license plate,” Baker said. “I think that there is some responsibility around really thinking about how a state government, an official voice, is addressing this issue.”

Baker feels that license plates are not an appropriate forum for this debate, and does not advocate a pro-choice license plate campaign in response.

Progressive roots or not, Iowa is now one of 29 states that offer “Choose Life” license plates, including Ohio, Massachusetts and Delaware. Associate Dean Pettys doesn’t feel that precedents established by other states would have played a legal role in the DOT’s decision, but understands that there can be other factors at play in divisive decisions like this one.

“I’m sure it made a political difference. If you’re the 50th state to do this and all 49 other states have done it, then for the political actors in that 50th state it makes it an easier call, probably, to say, ‘Well, everyone else has done it and the sky hasn’t fallen, why don’t we do it too?’ whereas if you’re the first, maybe you feel a little nervous wondering how people are going to respond,” Pettys said.

IRTL’s Bowen is optimistic that the plates will have multiple positive effects on the pro-life movement in Iowa. To Bowen, the most obvious effect will be that people with pro-life beliefs will now be able to see the “Choose Life” message on other cars and be reminded that they aren’t alone in their views. She also feels that the license plates will be able to make another, more personal connection with drivers across the state.

“We may never know about a young woman who’s sitting in traffic and confronted with really the most difficult decision that she may have to make and really wrestling through whether or not she wants to remain pregnant, and we’re hopeful that an opportunity like a license plate in front of you might just be the proverbial sign that somebody needs to make another choice,” Bowen said.

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Though the message on the plates is meant to be a gentle approach to a polarizing issue, Baker says “Choose Life” frames the abortion debate as a choice between right and wrong. By demonizing abortion, she says the debate stalls out because women feel ashamed to talk about it in a meaningful way.

“As a member of the Clinic, and certainly as part of the conversation we’re trying to have in the community, our idea is that the best response to this issue is open conversation,” Baker said. “In my heart I believe that people on all sides of this issue have the value of the sanctity of life in their hearts, I really do.”