PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Advocates of legal abortion are calling on Gov. Lincoln Chafee to veto legislation that would create a "Choose Life" license plate and direct some of the proceeds to a local group that encourages women not to terminate their pregnancies.
Rhode Island's Democratic-controlled House and Senate voted Monday evening to authorize the Division of Motor Vehicles to sell license plates designed by CareNet Pregnancy Center of Rhode Island that would say Choose Life and display the Choose Life kids logo used by states nationwide.
The vote was a victory for local social conservatives, who were dismayed by the legalization of same-sex marriage in May, and another example of the state's overwhelmingly Democratic legislature bucking the policy preferences of liberals nationally.
- PDF: Read the House 'Choose Life' bill
- How your lawmaker voted: House | Senate
- Op-Ed: Abortion rights in Rhode Island today
Drivers would pay an extra $40 for the plates, with $20 going to the state's general fund and $20 going to CareNet RI, a nonprofit that provides services to women facing unexpected pregnancies at a facility on Greenwich Street in Providence and opposes abortion. A $10 surcharge to renew the plates would also go to CareNet.
The lead sponsors of the license-plate bill are Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, and Sen. Lou DiPalma, D-Middletown. An earlier version of the bill would have directed half the proceeds to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, instead of CareNet.
Rhode Island would join 29 other states that offer Choose Life license plates if the bill becomes law, according to Choose Life Inc., a Florida nonprofit that has been advocating for the plates since 1996. Massachusetts and Connecticut also have Choose Life plates, according to the organization, which says they've raised a combined $16 million nationwide.
The national Care Net website describes its "ultimate aim" as "to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. As a result, the hearts of women and men are being changed by Christ's love. In addition, those struggling with past abortions are finding God's healing and forgiveness."
In a statement distributed by Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Justice slammed the vote as "the first standalone floor vote against women's health in decades" by the General Assembly and called on Chafee to veto the legislation.
"We are dismayed and frustrated that this legislature, under Speaker Fox's leadership, has spent more time appeasing the radical right than looking at real solutions to real problems," Carolyn Mark, president of the Rhode Island National Organization for Women, said in a statement.
Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger told WPRI.com the governor "will evaluate the bill when it comes to his desk," though she acknowledged the Democratic governor backs legal abortion, saying: "He is a supporter of comprehensive female reproductive health."
The Choose Life bill passed the House on a 40-26 vote, with House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, among those voting against it, and passed the Senate on a 23-13 vote, with Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, among those who supported it. Two Republican senators, David Bates and Chris Ottiano, voted against the license plate.
The legislation says the new Choose Life plates will not be issued until at least 900 of them have been ordered, and requires CareNet RI "to submit an annual accounting report" detailing the proceeds it receives from the DMV. The sale of 900 license plates would mean at least $18,000 for CareNet RI, which suffered a serious fire at its former headquarters on Elmwood Avenue last winter.
Rhode Island's DMV sells a number of other special plates that benefit charities such as the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse, the Red Sox Foundation and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Lawmakers are also considering adding a plate to benefit the Autism Project of Rhode Island.
Moderate Party founder Ken Block, who is again seeking the governor's job in 2014, also called on Chafee to veto the Choose Life license plates. He argued the state's other charitable license plates "advocate for non-political causes."
"In Rhode Island, there are strong opinions on both sides of the abortion issue," Block said. "However, a license plate is the wrong venue for this debate. Citizens can already place pro-life stickers on their cars and donate to the causes they choose."
Abortion was also briefly a flashpoint in last week's House debate over the state budget, when Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, proposed an amendment to require Rhode Island's new health-insurance exchange to offer lower-cost plans that don't cover abortion. The measure never received a vote after Speaker Fox ruled it out of order and a majority of legislators backed his ruling.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote Tuesday on a similar bill requiring the health exchange to offer versions of all insurance plans that don't cover abortion but are otherwise identical. The bill was introduced Thursday by Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, and is co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence.
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