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Legislators pass anti-choice license plate bill

Before the Senate Special Legislation Committee convened in room 313 of the State House to discuss Senate Bill 298, the votes had been counted and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed knew that her presence was going to be required in order to pass the bill out of committee. No one spoke in favor of the bill but seven citizens, representing themselves
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Published on July 1, 2013
By Uprise RI

Before the Senate Special Legislation Committee convened in room 313 of the State House to discuss Senate Bill 298, the votes had been counted and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed knew that her presence was going to be required in order to pass the bill out of committee. No one spoke in favor of the bill but seven citizens, representing themselves and thousands of Rhode Islanders, spoke out against it. Still, early in the hearings two senators got up and left the room, taking their “no” votes with them and when the tally was taken, the vote was five to four in favor.

Senate President Paiva-Weed cast the deciding vote.

The legislation creates a special “Choose Life” license plate that was originally going to be designed and marketed by the Knights of Columbus, but realizing that the KoC has bargained away a good deal of its political capital and public good will with its strong stance against marriage equality and its insistence on preserving its right to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens, a last minute change was made to make the recipient of the “Choose Life” license plate funds a group called CareNet, a faith-based pregnancy counseling center that “does not provide or refer for abortions.”

CareNet describes itself as “a Christian outreach ministry.”

Here’s the “Organizational Statement of Faith” from their website:

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, only infallible authoritative Word of God. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return…

Public commentary was to be heard on this bill and RI Future was the first speaker called. We had prepared our remarks based on the idea that the Knights of Columbus were to be the group taking care of this license plate deal. Ten seconds into my comments Senate President Paiva-Weed interrupted and informed me that the bill had been changed. She asked Senator Louis DiPalma to explain.

“So,” I asked, “the Knights of Columbus are no longer involved?”

Paiva-Weed did not answer me directly, but said, “The whole thing has been completely modified in response to those concerns being expressed to the Speaker [Fox].”

DiPalma explained that everywhere in the bill where it previously said “Knights of Columbus” it now says “CareNet Pregnancy Center of Rhode Island.”

“It is,” said DiPalma, “no different than the plates that we did for the Red Sox.”

Of course, the Red Sox plates raised money for “for academically talented Rhode Island high school seniors going on to college who have demonstrated a commitment to community service.” There is a difference between a secular, non-partisan scholarship program and a faith-based anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center. Conflating the two is simply dishonest.

Our testimony now out the window, we did our best. “I don’t know what CareNet is, exactly, ” said RI Future, “but I know they are not a medical group. They are a crisis center and don’t offer a full range of options for women who might be dealing with a problem pregnancy. For instance, CareNet would not refer a woman to Planned Parenthood or to a doctor for birth control or an abortion. In fact, they would try to counsel the woman out of choosing abortion.”

Everyone was forced to modify their testimony somewhat, in response to the changes in the bill. Tony Houston, speaking on behalf of the Secular Coalition of Rhode Island (SCRI), had kept his testimony centered primarily on principles rather than specifics, and suffered the least modification.

Susan Yolen of Planned Parenthood asked why the General Assembly was more interested in license plates that will do nothing to prevent unwanted pregnancies or reduce abortion when they could have passed common sense medical expansions for reproductive health care.

It should be noted that this last minute change to the bill changed none of the essential problems. The Knights of Columbus were originally going to give the money they gathered with the “Choose Life” license plates to a faith based pregnancy crisis center. As RI Future said in our somewhat confused and off the cuff testimony, at the point the state starts funding “non-government funded” crisis pregnancy centers they cease to be “non-government funded.”

Meanwhile, behind me, the other people gathered to testify against the bill were furiously looking up CareNet on the Internet, and discovering things about the group. Nothing learned about CareNet did much to ease their concerns

The Providence Journal noted the bill’s passage as a “win” for the anti-abortion lobby in Rhode Island. The legislation has been rushed through both houses, with the House actually voting on and approving the wrong, earlier version of the bill before being summoned back by text message to revote. This begs the question, “Why the rush?” Are the forces that be afraid that public scrutiny and attention will scuttle the bill’s chances when it is learned how absolutely outrageous this is?

Ultimately, the bill was vetoed by Governor Lincoln Chafee.

I spent some time before the committee meeting talking to Barth Bracy, of RI Right to Life, the premier anti-abortion group in Rhode Island. He told me that the bill “wasn’t even on his radar” and that there were many more important bills to be working on in the General Assembly. Bracy wasn’t in the room when the bill passed the Senate Committee.

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