Vanity Politics 

A seemingly innocuous license plate bill reignites the abortion debate.

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A proposed pro-choice, specialty license plate bill wending its way through the Virginia General Assembly is causing a headache for its main sponsoring organization, the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood — and a potentially explosive legal battle if the bill authorizing the plate fails to pass.

The brouhaha also has become a political bellwether of sorts. While the statehouse has tilted toward social conservatives for years, the recent election of a like-minded governor and attorney general may signal a renewed anti-abortion push.

The proposed plate has the tagline, “Trust Women. Respect Choice,” and was brainstormed by the Virginia chapters of Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Pro-Choice America to counter the “Choose Life” license plate that the General Assembly approved last year.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, at least 1,899 of the revenue-sharing “Choose Life” license plates have been purchased since 2009, sending $13,485 to Heartbeat International, a nonprofit Christian organization that funds anti-abortion pregnancy resource centers throughout the state.

Supporters of the pro-choice plate have pressured lawmakers to authorize their tag as a matter of not only fairness, but also legality. Specialty license plates are a forum for free speech, they say, and preventing a pro-choice message to exist alongside a pro-life one is unconstitutional. They point to a 2004 decision by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood in a similar license plate case in South Carolina.

“The legislature must pass your plate if it presents a viewpoint that's on the same issue,” says Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU.

But in an unexpected political twist, Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, amended the House version of the bill Feb. 15 to send a portion of the money earned from the revenue-sharing plate not to the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood, as the original bill intended, but to an empty state-run coffer called the Virginia Pregnant Women Support Fund, set up to help pay for ultrasound equipment and support services for pregnant women.

Under Gilbert's amendment, the message of the plate is the same, but the original organization intended to benefit — the reason many people would choose to buy the plate — is out.

Gilbert argues that the language of the pro-choice plate doesn't jibe with his view of Planned Parenthood. “I don't know if we've ever had a plate that had a message that was inconsistent … with the mission of the sponsoring organization,” Gilbert says. “They consistently do not trust women to make informed choices.”
 
Representatives from Planned Parenthood have insisted that money earned from the plate, like the approximately $35,000 the nonprofit says it receives each year in state Medicaid reimbursements, wouldn't be used for abortions, but for preventative services such as HIV and cancer screenings. Gilbert's response: “Well it certainly frees up other money that they can use for abortion services.”

Delegates and representatives from Planned Parenthood say Gilbert's move is unprecedented. The amendment, if passed, also may flout state law, according to some Democratic opponents.
 
“We're sort of in uncharted territory,” says Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

Of course, Gilbert's amendment may not carry — delegates say it probably will be struck in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
 
But if the switch passes, the 400 prepaid applications for the plate already filed by supporters of Planned Parenthood “will just be null and void,” says Jessica Honke, the director of public policy for the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood. The fund substituted by Gilbert, Honke says, hasn't gone through the required legwork of securing at least 350 prepaid applications for the plate.

“It's not what people signed up for,” sums up Courtney Jones, the manager of grassroots organizing for the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. Jones says she worries that applicants will withdraw their support if Gilbert's amendment ultimately carries, which would effectively kill the license plate, and strip Planned Parenthood of potential revenue.
 
“It's brilliant strategy,” Jones says.

Jones has been organizing state protests and rallying supporters in the two weeks following Gilbert's amendment, and her efforts took on added fervor last week after Delegate Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William County, held a news conference announcing his budget amendment to strip Planned Parenthood of all state funding. (Not to mention his suggestion that some children born with disabilities were God's revenge for abortions.) All three state executive officers — Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — support defunding the organization because it provides abortion services.

But according to the Code of Virginia, the state's Health Department is required to reimburse private health providers for any abortions resulting from rape or incest or in which the fetus has severely incapacitating physical or mental deformities for pregnant women who are eligible for Virginia's State Medical Assistance Plan. In fiscal year 2009, the department reimbursed eight abortion procedures based on this provision.

Marshall has proposed amendments to defund Planned Parenthood in the past — to no avail. In addition to the about $35,000 the Planned Parenthood says it receives annually for Medicaid reimbursements, it received $309,17.22 in contracts from the Health Department between fiscal years 2005 and 2009, mostly for educational services for teens and adults and elective sterilization procedures.

As the fallout from Marshall's comments dies down, supporters of the pro-choice license plate are left recrafting their strategy. Honke of Planned Parenthood says the organization is considering several legal options if the bill isn't passed to the group's liking. Kent Willis of the ACLU maintains that if the General Assembly authorizes the plate “in a way that means the plate is never produced, then they are, in our opinion, in violation of the court rulings on this issue.”

More importantly, perhaps, the debate may be a sign of things to come for pro-choice advocates and organizations such as Planned Parenthood. While the culture wars between the GOP-led House of Delegates and Democrat-controlled Senate have been simmering for years, the election of McDonnell, a staunch social conservative, adds significant ammunition to pro-life camp.

“So long as we have the existing political dynamic in Virginia, [this issue] is more likely to gain more rather than less momentum,” says longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth, founder of Web site and political consultancy Virginia Tomorrow.

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