You would think that a proposal to issue pro-life license plates would be obviously, patently unconstitutional. You’d be right: Courts across the nation have said so. But that hasn’t stopped conservatives in the North Carolina General Assembly from introducing the same bill year after year. “It didn’t go anywhere last time,” says Paige Johnson, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina. “The fact that it’s not constitutional doesn’t really bother people who are opposed to a woman’s right to choose.”

The measure could surface again in this year’s short session of the legislature, which will deal with budgetary issues. If it does, pro-choice groups will fight it, just like they fought and defeated 13 other bills in 2003.

When most people think of laws that concern abortion rights, birth control and sex education, they think of the White House, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress. But Kate Michelman, outgoing head of the national advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, says the states are where battles are really being fought. “Since 1995, state legislatures have enacted nearly 400 laws restricting a woman’s right to choose,” Michelman said in an interview during her recent visit to Chapel Hill. The “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” and the ban on late-term (so-called “partial-birth”) abortions, both signed into federal law by President Bush this year, reached Congress after going on the books in dozens of states.

“Many pro-choice people do confine their worry about whether a candidate is pro-choice to federal candidates,” Michelman says, “and what has proven to be true is that office holders from county commissioners all the way up to the presidency are able to affect our right to choose, the ability of women to exercise that right, and the ability of medical providers to provide the service.”

Pro-choice advocates want you to know what’s at stake in North Carolina.

Pro-choice advocates support:

  • “Abstinence-Plus Education.”
    Public school students would have access to medically and factually accurate sex education that offers information about birth control and STD/HIV prevention, in addition to abstinence. Such a curriculum is currently available in only 10 percent of the state’s school districts–the other 90 percent teach abstinence only.
  • Emergency contraception in the emergency room.
    Also known as the morning-after pill, emergency contraception prevents pregnancy by inducing a menstrual period within 72 hours after intercourse. (The abortion pill RU-486, by contrast, terminates a pregnancy within the first few weeks.) Pro-choice advocates want to make EC available to victims of rape and domestic violence. Studies have estimated that EC reduces the abortion rate by 55 percent where it is available, but only three-quarters of the women in North Carolina know about it, and Wal-Mart refuses to stock EC in their pharmacies.
  • The regulation of crisis pregnancy centers.
    “Pregnant? Scared? We can help.” These religiously motivated groups offer free pregnancy tests to women with unplanned pregnancies, but follow up with medically inaccurate information about abortion and birth control. (See “Medicine or Ministry?” by Barbara Solow, June 18, 2003.)
  • More teen pregnancy prevention programs.
    Such programs have brought the teen pregnancy rate down for 12 years in a row, but North Carolina still has the 14th highest birth rate in the nation for girls 15-19 years old. In 1999, the birth rate among Latino girls 15-19 in the state was the highest in the nation. Partnerships with churches, particularly rural black churches in the eastern parts of the state, have been especially successful at preventing teen pregnancy.

    Pro-choice advocates oppose:

  • Notarized parental consent.
    Currently, state law requires girls under the age of 16 to have signed parental consent to have an abortion. Some legislators back a bill that would go further, requiring that consent to be notarized, which Johnson says would create an unnecessary and unfair obstacle.
  • Mandatory waiting periods.
    There is currently no mandatory 24-waiting period here, as exists in other states, but conservative legislators are always trying to change that. Considering that only 17 of the state’s 100 counties have abortion providers, requiring women to check in at a clinic a day or more before the procedure would create economic barriers for women who have to travel long distances.
  • Elimination of abortion benefits from the state employees’ health plan.
  • Elimination of the state abortion fund.
    Created as a remedy to the Hyde Amendment, which denied Medicaid coverage for abortions, the state abortion fund was slashed in 1996, and restrictions were added that made it available only to women at or below the federal poverty level yet not qualified for Medicaid–conditions that cancel each other out. No one has been able to access it since. Conservatives want to eliminate the fund altogether, but pro-choice advocates are hoping to keep it intact and eventually lift the restrictions.

    Local elections

  • When he wasn’t on the campaign trail, John Edwards was an unwavering supporter of choice in the U.S. Senate, particularly on the judiciary committee, where he fought Bush’s conservative judicial nominees. With 48 anti-abortion senators and only 33 clearly pro-choice, the North Carolina seat is crucial.

  • Redistricting has changed the landscape for incumbent state legislators, who’ll face new challenges this year.
  • The controversy over abstinence-only education plays out very close to home: A 2001 state law empowers local boards of education to expand their sex-ed curriculum beyond abstinence. Even school board votes have an impact on choice.


    How do you know who’s who? Lillian’s List is a statewide independent political committee that was formed in 1998 to help pro-choice Democratic women get elected to the General Assembly. Its members pledge to give at least $50 to at least two of its recommended candidates. So far, 13 of them have been elected. .

    The Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina also issue endorsements in state legislative campaigns. EndBlock