STOKING FIRE: Anti-Choice Boycotts Continue, but Will Businesses Continue to Give In?

Boycotts and harassment tactics have an impact, even if it’s not the impact the anti-choicers would like. When businesses submit to antiabortion browbeating, it forces clinicians to scramble to find new suppliers, diverts attention from the provision of care, and exacerbates tensions and anxieties.

A little more than a year ago, the evangelical Christian group, Repent America, kicked off a campaign against Stericycle, a national medical waste disposal company. The goal? To cripple abortion clinics by making it impossible for them to dispose of fetal remains, sharps, and other surgical throwaways. The organization calls Stericycle “a modern-day Auschwitz” and equates the company with German businesses that supported Hitler’s genocidal policies.

“Government entities, police forces, military troops, and even civilians from a number of countries aided the Nazis in the destruction of the Jewish people,” their website begins. “Some supplied construction materials and funds to the Nazi military. Some provided lists of names of Jewish people in their countries. Some helped to gather and deport Jews onto freight trains.” Moving into the present, the site rails that “today in America a diabolical silence and the mass annihilation of unwanted persons remains in our midst…It is because of companies like Stericycle that abortionists are able to operate.”

This rhetorical flourish—and the concomitant ratcheting up references to the “abortion holocaust”–have played well for anti-choicers since no company wants to be publically likened to Nazi collaborators. Michael Marcavage, head of Repent America, obviously understood this when he launched the boycott. Not only that, since Stericycle rented trucks from Penske and Ryder, the campaign also zeroed in on them. Both quickly folded and in 2011 stopped allowing their trucks to service abortion facilities. The campaign is currently focused on AimNationaLease for the same reason. According to Repent America, Aim “allows Stericycle to use its trucks to collect the remains of aborted babies and the items used in killing them.”

Boycotts, of course, are a tried-and-true progressive tactic and have successfully protested everything from unfair labor practices to homophobia. But what’s good for the goose has proved good for the gander and the Right—always eager to appropriate winning strategies —has gravitated to the boycott full throttle.

This isn’t wholly new. Indeed, on a local level anti-abortion activists have threatened landlords, rental agents, construction crews, and delivery services since shortly after the Roe decision. At the same time, it wasn’t until 2003–when Chris Danze, an Austin, Texas, concrete foundation contractor, organized Texas Contractors and Suppliers for Life–that the full muscle of anti-choice boycotting was exerted. At that time Planned Parenthood was in the throes of building a new $6.2 million clinic in Austin and had hired the Browning Construction Company as general contractor. Danze told The National Catholic Register that he and his group opposed the “sexual mayhem and killing of unborn children” that they believe Planned Parenthood represents. A well-publicized boycott of contractors affiliated with the health center paid off; shortly after the groundbreaking, Browning pulled out of the project.

“The boycott did not stop Planned Parenthood in Austin from being erected but it delayed it,” says Vicki Saporta, President and CEO of the National Abortion Federation. “It made it more difficult and expensive for the clinic to be built.”

What’s more, anti-abortion boycotts have expanded into other arenas, targeting any-and-all businesses that interact with providers. Lori Williams, clinic director at Little Rock Family Planning Services [lrfps.com], got a taste of this in January 2012 when Welsco, an oxygen and nitrous oxide company that the clinic had worked with for 15 years, suddenly informed her that they would no longer supply the health center. “The owner said that due to negative publicity Welsco couldn’t continue to work with us,” she reports. “He would not elaborate but said that I should go to the Internet and Google it. I did and found a photo of a Welsco truck at the clinic with commentary calling Welsco a business supporting abortion. Thom Huey, one of our regular protesters, had waged a one-man campaign to stop them from delivering to us. Apparently, he got a very quick reaction.”

Williams says that she was flabbergasted by Welsco’s capitulation and strenuously objected to the company’s demand that she immediately return the gas tanks. “I said, ‘No, you’re not going to do this. I paid for the gas and I’ll return the canisters when they’re empty or I have another supplier,'” she continues. An altercation with police, a lawsuit, and numerous attempts to secure a new supplier followed. “There were five companies that flat-out said they would not be involved with abortion, but we eventually found a company and now have a one year contract with them,” she adds.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, Founder, President, and CEO of the Whole Woman’s Health Center chain, has also felt the sting of anti-abortion pressure. After she discovered that Stericycle had improperly disposed of fetal remains, she fired the firm and began searching for a replacement. Waste Management Inc., a huge national company, was hired. “They signed a contract with me to pick up at my five Texas clinics, but only took one shipment from Austin before they said they couldn’t continue.”

Although Hagstrom Miller has been working with a local vendor ever since, she describes what happened to Whole Woman as extremely troubling. What’s more, she acknowledges that when businesses submit to antiabortion browbeating, it forces clinicians to scramble to find new suppliers, diverts attention from the provision of care, and exacerbates tensions and anxieties.

I’ve never met Michael Muscavage or Chris Danze but I imagine these realities please both of them. In the end they know—as we do—that boycotts and the threat of bad publicity often work.

“Boycotts and harassment tactics have an impact, even if it’s not the impact the antis would like,” NAF’s Vicki Saporta concludes. ”These actions don’t close clinics or stop new ones from being built, but they can still be very disruptive. This undoubtedly explains why they’re increasingly being used.”

Indeed, Life Decisions International has compiled The Boycott List, a roster of companies that they say aid-and-abet Planned Parenthood. The eclectic line-up includes dozens of organizations and businesses, among them AOL, Bank of America, Bayer, Chevron, Girl Scouts of America, Human Rights Watch, The Kiwanis Club, The March of Dimes, Wells Fargo, Whole Foods, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.