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"Respect Life" license plates spark debate

January 26, 1999
By: David Grebe
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's abortion debate took a novel twist Tuesday as a proposal for pro-life specialty license plates was brought before the Senate Transportation Committee.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City, would allow Missourians to replace the "Show-Me State" logo with a "Respect Life" message.

The license plates would cost $25, and the proceeds would help fund alternatives to abortion.

Sam Lee, director of Campaign for Life Missouri, says the plates would allow people another venue to support alternatives to abortion.

Lee said the bill simply allows self-expression, and no Missourian would have to buy one. "It's similar to the Children's Trust Fund plates that support prevention of child abuse," he said.

But Mary Mosley, legislative chair for Missouri Women's Network, didn't portray the bill as benign. "This represents state sanction of that particular group," she said.

Mosley also had questions about where the money raised by the plates would go. "We don't want money going to unregulated pregnancy crisis centers," she said. She noted her group was concerned that many crisis pregnancy centers are church-run, and it was unclear whether they sought to convert their patrons.

According to Lee, the state currently provides $900,000 promoting "alternatives to abortion" in Missouri -- and he said Gov. Carnahan supported that funding.

Marsha Richeson, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, warned lawmakers they may be opening a Pandora's box. "If we allow a red rose and the words 'Respect Life,' what about a flaming cross and the Ku Klux Klan?"

Richeson said she sees parallels between this debate and last year's battle over Planned Parenthood's eligibility for family planning funds.

"The legislature didn't have to provide money for family planning, but once they did, they couldn't discriminate on the basis of an organization's political views," she said.

Mosley and Richeson both said they wondered why the anti-abortion message has to be moved from bumper stickers to license plates.

"They can already give all the money they want, and express themselves with bumper stickers," Mosley said.

"I think that this is just one more way for them to force their political agenda on the people of this state," Richeson said.

Proponents downplayed the bill's impact. "It's just another personal preference license plate," Wiggins said. "They would have the same rights as everyone else to propose specialty plates."

Wiggins was said he wasn't opposed to an abortion-rights license plate. "If they want to do that, I'll support them."

Missouri has approximately 55 different types of specialty plates, allowing drivers to support anything from the Jaycees to Central Methodist College.