Rick Perry Gets a Life

Perry drives anti-abortion license plate proposal

Rick Perry Gets a Life
Illustration by Doug Potter

Gov. Rick Perry on Dec. 18 announced his support for a bill that would create a "Choose Life" specialty license plate. House Bill 109, filed by Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, marks the sixth attempt to pass legislation creating an anti-abortion license plate. If women's health advocates have anything to say about it, it'll be the sixth time the bill meets with defeat. "I am here today to endorse an effort that will allow Texans to support the humane choice of adoption," Perry said. "The majority of Texans believe in the sanctity of life, and this license plate will give them a means to tell the world in a subtle but meaningful way, while providing support to pregnant women making the decision to choose adoption."

Currently, 17 states issue a Choose Life plate to motorists, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute. Of those, 13 use plate revenues to fund adoption assistance, education, and counseling services; eight specifically forbid giving any funds from plate sales to any group that provides abortion, counseling, or referrals (read: no money for Planned Parenthood); and seven use funds to directly support so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which, by design, provide no medical services and instead offer "counseling" and "support" services to pregnant women – often steering them to other taxpayer-funded resources, such as food stamps and other public-health programs.

Phillips' bill includes each of these three restrictions – including devoting funds to pregnancy "counseling" services, which, it would seem, does little more than setting up yet another way to funnel money to fund CPCs. Already the state is diverting $5 million over the biennium to Sen. Tommy Williams' pet project, the Alternatives to Abortion program. The program, which he created via budget rider in 2005, earmarks health-care funds to "promote childbirth" – via counseling and "support," but not with real health care. The program is administered by the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, which provides funding for various CPCs around the state through a contract with the Health and Human Services Commission. The network has consistently failed to meet the "performance standards" it crafted for itself under the contract with the Health and Human Services Commission – including the most basic requirements, such as how many providers it would sign up and how many women it would serve. The agency's preliminary Legislative Appropriations Request, which began circulating in September, includes a $1.5 million increase for the Alternatives to Abortion program.

To NARAL Pro-Choice Texas Executive Director Sara Cleveland, the Choose Life plate represents nothing but another black hole for money that could have been spent on real health care. "There are few bills that do less to help prevent unintended pregnancies, the only cause of abortions, than HB 109," she said. If the state is really interested in providing additional support for adoption providers, it should do so by appropriation, she said. (Or, perhaps, change the plate to say something more neutral, such as "Choose Adoption." That suggestion has come up in the past but has fallen on deaf ears.)

Whether the plate would pass legal muster also remains to be seen. Legal actions regarding the plates have been filed in at least four states. In Arizona and Missouri, courts have ordered the state to issue the plates, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In Illinois, the federal appeals court said the state does not have to make the plates available to motorists, and in South Carolina, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plate offended the First Amendment through "viewpoint discrimination, by allowing only the Choose Life plate," and said that the state had "insulated itself from electoral accountability by disguising its own pro-life advocacy."

Indeed, Perry's midafternoon press conference regarding the bill – where the governor was flanked by the state's pro-life faithful and at least one crying toddler – seemed designed as little more than a moment of political grandstanding. "It's a total political ploy," said Blake Rocap, legislative counsel for Texas' NARAL. For sure, the timing, in anticipation of next year's governor's race, couldn't be better to shore up the support of the Republican Party's conservative base – especially before Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchi­son gets back to town.

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Choose Life, Legislature, Rick Perry, Larry Phillips, HB 109, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Sara Cleveland, Blake Rocap

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