A group opposed to abortion has won approval from the Iowa Department of Transportation to order state-issued license plates with a “Choose Life” message.
“This is great news for Iowa’s unborn,” said state Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, a proponent of the plates. He added that he hopes the plates will help Iowans understand “that each innocent life is a gift from God.”
Iowa becomes the 29th state to approve a variation of the Choose Life plate, which will include a drawing of two smiling children. The national effort is promoted by a Florida-based group known as Choose Life America, while the campaign here is sponsored by Iowa Right to Life, a Des Moines-based anti-abortion organization.
Although the DOT issues dozens of specialty plates for breast cancer awareness, military service, state universities and colleges, “God Bless America,” and many other subjects, this is the first involving an issue as sensitive as abortion.
The agency prohibits politically oriented specialty plates that specifically endorse a political candidate, but officials don’t believe the Choose Life message violates its criteria, said DOT spokeswoman Dena Gray-Fisher. If groups supporting other politically sensitive topics — such as freedom of choice or gay rights — want license plates promoting their causes, their applications also will be considered, she said.
Officials with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Iowa’s largest provider of abortion services, declined to comment Thursday. State Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, an abortion-rights advocate, said the DOT’s decision “complicates things a little bit.” Although she has some concerns about using state-issued license plates to promote a particular issue, she said she wants to be sensitive to free speech.
The Choose Life message is intended to make a softer, nonconfrontational statement about abortion, said Jenifer Bowen, executive director of Iowa Right to Life.
“It is hopefully invoking something in the people who see it that there are other choices,” she said. “It is definitely not abrasive or offensive.”
The opportunity for Iowa motorists to secure Choose Life plates wouldn’t have been possible without help from Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, a longtime abortion foe, Bowen said.
Supporters unsuccessfully had sought legislation to use the plates over the past decade. But Branstad, who returned to office in January 2011, helped secure approval through administrative channels, Bowen said.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht confirmed that the governor’s office helped the plate’s supporters navigate the bureaucratic process. “Governor Branstad is pro-life, and the advocates for the plates met Iowa Code requirements,” he said.
Under DOT rules, proponents have one year to obtain 500 applications for the plates, which cost $25 more than regular fees for motor vehicle registrations. Bowen said she anticipates no problem securing the applications, noting that more than 50 people immediately expressed interest Thursday morning after the plans were announced.
Randall Wilson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the only “raised eyebrow” he has about the Choose Life plates is whether Branstad might have bent the rules for one organization because he agrees with its message more than others. “But all things being on the up and up, we agree that anyone should be able to get a specialty plate,” he added.
The national effort for Choose Life plates has led to about a dozen lawsuits, both by groups opposing the plates and by organizations seeking them, said Russ Amerling, a leader of Choose Life America. All but two cases — in New York and North Carolina — have been resolved, he said. In some states, a portion of the license plate fees are designated for “life affirming” pregnancy centers, maternity homes and nonprofit adoption agencies. But in Iowa, all of the additional fees will be directed to the state’s road construction fund.