Politics & Policy

Nixing Pro-Life License Plates — and Funding for Suicide Prevention

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at the State Capitol in Lansing in 2014. (Reuters photo: Rebecca Cook)
Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, who claims to be pro-life, does a disservice to the cause.

When Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, first ran for elected office in 2010, he professed that he was “firmly pro-life” and had “a strong belief in the value of human life.” But on Friday, with his second and final term in office in sight (because of term limits), the supposedly pro-life governor did something inexcusable: He vetoed a bill authorizing a “choose life” license plate.

The bill, SB-163, passed both houses of the Michigan legislature with strong support and is so mainstream that 30 states and the District of Columbia already offer “choose life” plates — including (besides D.C.) the liberal bastions Massachusetts, Delaware, Connecticut, and Hawaii. But unlike the choose-life license plates available elsewhere, the Michigan plate would be the first to fund suicide-prevention efforts in addition to assisting women facing crisis pregnancies.

Given his earlier claims of being pro-life, and likely anticipating the backlash over his veto, Governor Snyder penned a letter explaining his rationale. His justification is just as indefensible as his veto. Here’s what he wrote:

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that when a state issues a specialty license plate, the state itself is speaking. And as a speaker, it is free to choose its message. . . . The “Choose Life” license plate is a political message that has the potential to bitterly divide millions of Michiganders and that, in my view, is not appropriate for a state-issued license plate.

Snyder was correct to note that the Supreme Court had recently held that specialty license plates constitute government speech (and not a public forum) and that therefore the government may promote its preferred policy or position. His comment also directly refuted the bizarre position that the American Civil Liberties Union took in lobbying against SB-163: The ACLU argued that the choose-life plate should be rejected because Michigan did not offer a pro-choice option, meaning that the proposed legislation discriminated on the basis of viewpoint. But as Snyder recognized, and as the Supreme Court made clear in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, when government speech is involved, viewpoint neutrality is not required. Or, as the Supreme Court put it, Texas, which offers license plates reading “Fight Terrorism,” need not also offer plates promoting al-Qaeda.

That Snyder acknowledged Michigan’s right to “choose its message” but then rejected the choose-life license plate renders his veto even more inexplicable. As the bill’s sponsor, Republican senator Patrick Colbeck, told the Detroit News: “The only way that holds any credence as a divisive message is if you somehow believe ‘Choose Death’ is a viable message — and it’s not.”

Colbeck is correct. While Roe v. Wade may be controversial, the choose-life license plate does not wade into the question of whether abortion is a constitutional right or even of whether, absent a constitutional right, abortion should be illegal. Instead, the “choose life” embossment assumes just the opposite — that a pregnant woman (or a person contemplating suicide) has a choice and that the government hopes that choice is for life.

It is beyond comprehension that anyone — much less a purportedly pro-life politician — would think it inappropriate to encourage the choice of life. In fact, in the same breath that the Supreme Court created the constitutional right to abortion, it stressed the state’s important interest in protecting the developing child. And since Roe, the Supreme Court has consistently stressed the state’s right to “express a preference for normal childbirth” and to adopt measures “designed to persuade” the mother “to choose childbirth over abortion.”

It is beyond comprehension that anyone — much less a purportedly pro-life politician — would think it inappropriate to encourage the choice of life.

In vetoing the choose-life message, Snyder nixed as well the attendant funding of “projects that promote life-affirming choices,” including homes for pregnant women, crisis-pregnancy centers, and other organizations that provide practical support to pregnant women, as well as suicide prevention programs and campaigns promoting adoption.

Planned Parenthood, which bills itself as “pro-choice,” also lobbied against the choose-life plate. Its position, like Governor Snyder’s, is absurd. After touting its non-abortion services, Planned Parenthood argued that it opposed SB-163 because the fees would fund an ideological group “that stands in the way of reducing abortion rates.” How? Apparently by not generating “money for education or contraception access.”

But the clarion call to “choose life” focuses on the choice after a woman is pregnant. At that point, contraception is irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is the support, both financial and emotional, that a woman facing a crisis pregnancy receives. Even the Guttmacher Institute finds that “poor women were substantially overrepresented among abortion patients in 2008 and 2014, and had the highest abortion index of all subgroups examined in the latter year.” It is not much of a choice if a woman believes that, because of her financial situation, she has no choice.

Planned Parenthood’s second objection proves even more ridiculous — as well as ironic: In opposing HB-163, Planned Parenthood stressed that it “has consistently opposed the concept of allowing a special interest organization that does not provide health services to use the State’s resources to impose their beliefs on others.” But the specialty-license-plate program does not use state resources. Motorists pay a licensing fee for the plates; the money distributed to fund life-affirming programs would come from a $25 surplus fee paid by the purchaser. And no one is forced to purchase the license plates or fund the various non-profit organizations. The fees are paid only by those who choose to purchase the specialty plate — unlike the federal tax dollars that Planned Parenthood currently receives regardless of the beliefs or choices of others.

While the failure of the “Choose Life” legislation will prevent Michigan motorists from displaying a life-affirming message on their license plates, the governor’s veto has confirmed three other realities: Governor Snyder is not pro-life. Planned Parenthood is not pro-choice. And abortion-rights activists and legislators would rather suicide-prevention programs go without funding than crisis-pregnancy centers receive a cent. “Choose Death” may be a viable message for the Left after all.


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