RICHMOND, Va. -- Abortion-rights advocates have been unable to halt the "Choose Life" license plate variations in nearly two-dozen states, so now they're working to balance the bumper debate.
Activists are pushing a "Trust Women/Respect Choice" license plate in Virginia, which would become only the fourth state to offer a pro-choice plate and the first to require legislative approval for it. Supporters have threatened to sue if lawmakers don't give drivers the option.
"We really don't feel like a license plate is the place to be promoting a political agenda," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. "However, the pro-choice community feels like they're being taken on by the anti-choice side with this license plate, and we feel like we need to get involved."
Opponents, including the state's attorney general and governor, say they oppose diverting money from plate fees to Planned Parenthood offices -- not necessarily the plates themselves.
A state Senate committee heard testimony on the bill Thursday and could vote on it this week. The full legislature's approval and the governor's signature are needed for the plates to be sold.
Last year, Virginia became the 23rd state to approve the "Choose Life" plate. The plates should be on the roads in Massachusetts, Delaware and North Dakota by the end of March, and efforts are under way in a dozen other states to get them approved, said Russ Amerling, a coordinator for the Florida-based Choose Life, Inc., which promotes the plates.
Nationwide, more than 520,000 of the plates have been sold since 2000, raising more than $11 million for anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, adoption services and maternity homes.
Those on the other side of the debate have yet to mount a coordinated response. Even in states where the plate is offered, it hasn't sold well, though at least 400 people have signed up to buy the pro-choice plates in Virginia.
Hawaii was first with a "Respect Choice" decal for plates in 2003, but lack of interest is threatening to halt its availability. A "Pro-family, Pro-choice" plate is available in Montana, and Pennsylvania has a Planned Parenthood labeled plate. However, only 22 of those are active.
Those states don't require the legislature to sign off -- the plates are handled administratively and can be sold as long as they meet certain requirements.
Virginia's proposed plate would generate money for the state's eight Planned Parenthood health centers, which provide free pregnancy tests, contraception, gynecological exams, cancer screenings and other services for about 30,000 people each year.
That is likely to be a source of contention for Republicans, who control the House and in recent years have stripped the organization of state funding other than Medicaid reimbursements because Planned Parenthood provides abortions. The organization says the money from any license plate sales -- $15 per plate after the first 1,000 are sold -- would not be used for abortions.
"I expect that's the hurdle," said Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who led the fight against the organization as a legislator. "It isn't the plate, it's where the money goes."
However, supporters say Virginia has no choice but to allow a pro-choice plate after it offered up a "Choose Life" plate -- because doing otherwise would be unconstitutional.
The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has twice ruled the government cannot unreasonably censor or favor one viewpoint on specialty plates because they are a public forum.
"The General Assembly has stepped into a legal morass now," said Sen. Janet Howell, who is sponsoring one of two bills to establish the plate. "You can't have just one point of view represented on license plates. You have to have both."
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the organization likely will sue if the state blocks the pro-choice plate, calling it a First Amendment issue.
"If the opposite were occurring -- a pro-choice plate having passed and an anti-choice plate being considered -- we would make the same legal argument in favor of the anti-choice plate," he said.
Cuccinelli said he was prepared to defend the state if lawmakers strike down the plate. Both he and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said lawmakers could avoid a clash by ensuring the bill doesn't allocate any money from plate sales to Planned Parenthood.
Virginia has more than 200 specialty license plates celebrating everything from sports teams to Jimmy Buffett fans. About 30 of those divert funds to nonprofit groups, and each costs $25 apiece.
Supporters say it's only fair that money from the plates goes to Planned Parenthood, since funds from the "Choose Life" plates in Virginia and numerous other states go to opposing groups.
The ACLU said Virginia and other states could avoid the problem by handing over approval of the plates to the Department of Motor Vehicles or some other administrative agency, as 21 have.
"This is one time lawmakers need to set aside their views on reproductive rights and let the First Amendment be their guide," Willis said. "If they can do that, the pro-choice license plate will be easily approved. If not, we're undoubtedly headed to court."
(This version CORRECTS that license plate says 'Respect Choice.')