Fight Abortion Bans by Boycotting Anti-Choice States

Nothing talks louder than money in the U.S. With over half of states on their way to banning abortion, the only choice is to fight with a boycott movement bigger than this nation has ever seen.

Pro-abortion rights activists demonstrates near an anti-abortion rights group outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 21, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

As a young man, I always considered myself a supporter of women’s rights. But the day that my older daughter was born, I felt at a visceral level how important this cause is. When our soulless husk of a Supreme Court overturned both the Roe and Casey precedents protecting the legal right to healthcare involving abortion, my memory of that giddy moment 26 years ago returned with one paramount thought: We must find a way to fight this.

I do not believe the recent stories that contemporary feminism has lost the power to inspire a big response. Abortion access is a mainstream cause: If you give the mostly quiet majority of this nation a direct and meaningful way to push back together, they will take it. Grassroots activism working through local organizations, networks, voter drives and efforts to shape discourse on reproductive topics are certainly necessary now and make a difference. But a national boycott movement has the potential to hit even harder and be impossible to ignore.

Outside the far right, including the increasingly fundamentalist jurists who made this decision and their many conservative evangelical allies across red states, there is both justified fury and despair, as the full effects of stealing two Supreme Court seats become clear. I do not criticize anyone for their religious views. Rather, the objection is that so many voters and lawmakers are willing to force others to obey a doctrine that they can only defend on religious grounds and use dirty tactics to steal Court seats. That is the definition of theocracy. Those willing to destroy democracy for the sake of theocracy should be called out for that offense to the rest of us. As Linda Burnstyn has written for Ms., the Dobbs decision repealing Roe is a declaration of social war.

Federal law could restore many of the constitutional rights that the Court and state governments are taking away—not only the right to safe abortions but also the right to register and vote without cynically rigged impediments, the right to public safety, and the right to election districts free of partisan gerrymandering—all denied by the Court in the last 10 years. But the Senate filibuster, which is far more contrary to the framers’ intentions than Roe ever was, blocks all such laws. As long as the filibuster remains, and less than 40 percent of the country controls the Senate, we basically do not have a functioning national legislature. This is what makes domination by a fundamentalist minority possible in the United States.

Reversing our decline requires more than winning a larger Senate majority. With the Court so captured by the Federalist Society cabal and so hostile to basic decency, we will need a series of constitutional amendments to reverse these and other destructive decisions to come. In this respect, things stand much as they did in 1857 after the Dred Scott decision threatened to expand slavery across the entire country. Without amendments, we should expect judicial decisions hampering or blocking state and federal laws that try to protect women traveling in search of what most other democratic societies regard as basic gynecological care. But amendments in turn require control of more state governments.

All this sounds impossible, but it is not. There is a focused, strong and immediately available way to fight the self-righteous theocrats who have fully taken over a major political party that in the recent past included leaders who supported the Equal Rights Amendment: a new consumer boycott against states that ban abortions.

Boycotts have played key roles in effective civil rights movements, the most famous being the Montgomery Alabama Bus Boycott of 1956.

The United States arguably began out of a boycott of British goods following the U.K.’s infamous Stamp Act of 1765. In fact, following the Virginia Resolves, the Continental Congress was first created by the 13 colonies to devise and enforce a boycott called the Articles of Association.

India’s path to independence from the U.K. was blazed by Mahatma Gandhi’s boycott of British salt in 1930.

The movement in many countries to boycott and divest from South African businesses was also crucial to bringing the horrific regime of racial apartheid to an end by 1994.

Today, it is time for defenders of women’s rights to do the same to big interests in anti-women states. Most of the nation’s wealth is found in the Atlantic and Pacific coastal states, and especially in the Northeast and California. With that much purchasing power, all that an effective boycott requires is coordination with the help of social media, as many recent ethical consumer boycotts have shown. Nothing talks louder than money in the U.S.: Just as we do not need to stay in Trump hotels, there are plenty of good alternatives to a family vacation in Texas, Florida or Ohio.

But to succeed, such a large boycott needs a single main list on which supporters can easily rely for their initial participation and for updates. Ideally this would appear on an authoritative website with a catchy name run by a diverse board. “Choice-cott” is one interesting possibility, but the “Boycott for Choice” is most direct.

The campaign should be as simple as possible consistent with effectiveness. It should have clear and limited demands, and offer participants different levels of “pledge,” given that not everyone who opposes criminalizing all abortions can easily boycott all the most likely targets.

Here are three possible ways it could work.

1. Avoid Holding Gatherings in Anti-Abortion States

The simplest approach would be for individual participants, their businesses and other organizations simply to avoid holding conferences, concerts, other events or family gatherings in the offending states. As the number of participants grows, this method would put pressure on organizations around the nation not to hold big events in the relevant states for fear of low attendance. And this method only requires people to check or remember a short list of states.

Right now, 21 states are well on their way to banning most abortions. But the boycott could focus first on 13 states with existing or imminent bans that allow no exceptions even for rape or the mother’s health. Those are Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.

2. Target States That House the Largest Corporations

But not all of these states are magnets for large events. So a second approach would be to target some of the largest corporations headquartered in these states or having major operations there.

  • Texas offers some big potential targets, including Exxon-Mobil, AT&T, Dell Technologies, Sysco, American Airlines and Halliburton.
  • Arkansas is home to Walmart and Tyson Foods.
  • Tennessee hosts Fedex, Autozone and Dollar General.
  • Missouri has Monsanto and H&R Block.

There are fine alternatives to every one of these firms’ products and services. However, to make this simple enough for consumers and business managers considering partnerships, it might be best to focus only on two of the largest companies in each state that offer no significant support to pro-choice lawmakers in their state capitols.

3. Boycott Companies That Fund Anti-Abortion Lawmakers

A third alternative would be to boycott companies such as Coca-Cola, General Motors, Citibank, AT&T and Exxon that contribute large sums annually to anti-choice lawmakers, irrespective of where they are headquartered. This method has the advantage of targeting some very prominent businesses with a lot of political clout both at the federal and state levels. But it also requires ongoing research to keep up with the lobbying tactics of several big businesses.

Of course, any large boycott raises important ethical questions, as the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” (BDS) movement against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has shown. Any collective form of punishment inevitably affects particular businesses and employees who are not individually at fault. But everyone in the worst 13 states still shares a collective responsibility for their laws and can help to elect pro-choice legislators.

While any of these three approaches could be combined, a sound boycott should still carefully limit its targets. In our case, the boycott for choice should probably spare colleges, music and arts in the worst offending states, because these institutions help facilitate interaction, understanding and solidarity among Americans across state lines. We cannot let an activist Court take every interstate good from us.

It is tragic that things have come to this point. I have spent most of my professional life as a non-Catholic working at Catholic universities, where I have respected dear friends and colleagues who had nuanced arguments on the difficult ethical aspects of abortion.

But private conscience and choice are one thing, and criminalizing choices of this personal nature are something else entirely—as the Catholic Republican justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, once so courageously argued. Now the only choice is to fight and the best ready weapon is a boycott movement bigger than this nation has ever seen.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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John Davenport teaches political philosophy at Fordham University in New York City. He had published several articles and books on moral theory, moral psychology, the rule of law, democratic theory and human rights. His most recent book, A League of Democracies (Routledge, 2019) lays out a plan to meet rising global threats from resurgent autocracies. His recent opinion pieces include an article in Salon on the NRA’s new arms race and spiraling security costs. He is currently working on a book laying out a comprehensive plan of 30 constitutional amendments to repair the federal government and our elections.