Anti-abortion car tags stir debate in Florida Governor must decide this week whether to sign bill for specialty plates

May 06, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- Do a childlike drawing of two smiling tots and the words "choose life" turn Florida's license plate into a provocative bumper sticker?

Can specialty plates saying "legalize marijuana" or "prayer in school" be far behind?

Those questions may be on the mind of Gov. Lawton Chiles this week as he considers signing a bill that opponents argue would make Florida the first state to let drivers express their anti-abortion sentiments on a license plate.

"This is clearly a message that advances a political agenda," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a south Florida Democrat and abortion-rights supporter. "And the message is so divisive that it could end up generating road rage. That's a danger."

She was among 21 of the 34 women in the Florida House -- including four Republicans -- who tried to change the slogan to "adopt a child." Most of a $20 annual fee for the special plates would go to nonprofit groups that counsel and pay living costs of women who give up children for adoption.

But efforts to change the message or kill the bill failed, and the "choose life" slogan passed by comfortable margins last week in both the Florida House and Senate. Chiles, an abortion-rights Democrat who last year vetoed an anti-abortion bill, has until May 15 to either sign, veto or let the bill become law without his signature.

Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican who sponsored the bill proposing the plates, dismissed fears of road rage as "a silly argument when people have bumper stickers more outrageous. "I'm surprised by the reaction to the tag. People are not required to have it.'

A majority of the 50 states now charge premium fees for specialty license plates that raise money for a host of causes, including wildlife preservation and education. Most specialty plates reflect personal interests or allegiances and are not controversial, although the Confederate flag has ignited heated debate in Maryland, for example.

In defense of the "choose life" wording, Feeney contends that by inference the message "concedes that from a legal position, abortion is a right." He said he would oppose a plate that urged outlawing abortions.

Still, opponents see a dangerous precedent in providing motorists with a government-issued instrument to state their views on a topic as incendiary as abortion. Florida has been rocked by violence over the abortion issue. Earlier this decade, two Florida doctors who performed abortions were slain, and clinics in several regions have been bombed.

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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