OCALA, Fla. — Randy Harris sat in his car during an Ocala, Fla., traffic jam and noticed a specialty license plate on the car in front of his. It promoted a wildlife conservation cause.
The idea that popped into Harris’ head at that point would eventually become a national campaign to convince pregnant women considering abortion to choose adoption instead.
“I was familiar with this cause’s efforts to raise funds,” said Harris, founder and president of Choose Life, Inc. “I thought that those of us who are pro-life could be using this same means to help women with resources that would allow them to choose adoption over abortion. So, I created a ‘Choose Life’ license plate, and it took off from there.”
Harris knew that if his efforts were successful in his home state of Florida, he could assist other pro-life volunteers to gain approval in their states.
That was in 1996. Little did he know that it would take several grueling years to achieve that goal.
Enlisting the help of two colleagues and fellow Floridians Jim Steel and Russ Amerling, Harris formed Choose Life, Inc., an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that helps citizens create and distribute specialty license plates promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.
The effort was launched in February 1997. A month later, Choose Life had accumulated the $30,000 application fee and 14,500 signatures (10,000 were necessary to have a specialty license plate approved by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles). The bill was passed with overwhelming majorities in both the state House and Senate, but former Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed it.
The veto drew national media attention — and caught the attention of pro-life volunteers in 35 other states looking for resources and advice on how to get “Choose Life” tags approved. This transformed the cause into a national movement.
The attention renewed the enthusiasm of the Choose Life, Inc. staff, who pushed to have the bill resubmitted. It passed during the last 15 minutes of the Senate’s session by one vote. In June 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law. Since then, more than $6.3 million has been raised, and more than 300,000 Choose Life plates have been issued in the state of Florida.
Twenty-four states have approved a “Choose Life” license plate. Virginia released its plate July 1, making it the 21st state to have one available; Arizona’s went on sale in May. Missouri’s plate should come out shortly, but New Mexico and North Dakota’s plates are not yet ready for release.
Now, 10 years after the first pro-life license plate was approved for production, groups are working toward approval in 14 other states.
“This is a simple way that anybody can help the cause with a minimum of effort,” said Amerling, Choose Life, Inc.’s publicity coordinator. In Florida, “Choose Life” license plates cost $22 annually, $20 of which goes directly to helping women with unintended pregnancies.
“That’s just $1.38 a day,” Amerling added. “And for that, you have a traveling billboard that will urge people to choose adoption over abortion.”
The money raised goes to safe havens, pregnancy-help centers and other agencies that provide screening, counseling, financial support and housing.
“Many of these women are not able to find work toward the end of their pregnancy,” said Debbie Ferguson, executive director of Women’s Pregnancy Center in Ocala. “With the money from the ‘Choose Life’ license plates, we’re able to help them so that they’re in a position to carry the child to term and offer it up for adoption. We also help them make plans for after the baby is born, since they can’t work for the first few weeks after the birth.”
In 2008, the center received $38,000 from the plates, 70% of which went directly to pregnant women placing their babies for adoption and 30% of which went to education, literature and advertising. During the same year, Women’s Pregnancy Center assisted four women in placing their babies for adoption.
“If we didn’t receive those funds,” Ferguson said, “we wouldn’t be able to help birth moms wanting to choose adoption over abortion. Some of these women wouldn’t have a place to live, a way to receive medical attention or pay their bills.”
Kevin Rizzo, a freelance writer in Ocala, says he’s had the plate on his car for at least five years. He and his wife, Becky, adopted a baby girl from China eight years ago.
“What sold me is that so much of the money for the plates actually goes to the ministry,” he said. “Once a year you get that bill, and, sure, it’s an extra expense. But to me, it’s worth it. It’s a worthy cause and a great way to advertise it.”
Looking to the Future
Efforts in many states have met with lawsuits from National Organization of Women, Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. The details of the cases vary, and complaints have cited such infractions as discrimination, partisanship and unlawful promotion of religious views.
Elizabeth Rex heads efforts to gain approval of the plates in New York and New Jersey. She and her husband, Charles, founded The Children First Foundation, the cause’s nonprofit organization (which was also the sponsor of the approved license plate in Connecticut).
“What people need to understand is that those of us who support adoption are really both pro-life and pro-choice, because the adoption option respects a woman’s right to choose as well as the child’s right to life," she said. "It is becoming increasingly clear in our country that ‘choice’ is not synonymous with only one choice, because adoption is a good choice that every American can support.”
Harris has hopes for great strides in the next 10 years.
“Ultimately, I’d like to see every state in the nation with a ‘Choose Life’ license plate,” he said. “I’d like to see every need of every woman in the decision-making process met. That’s my hope.”
Marge Fenelon writes
from Cudahy, Wisconsin.