A Short History of Abortion-Related Boycotts

The number of abortion-related boycotts, even failed ones, is staggering when you look not too far in the past.

[Photo: Writer and producer Norman Lear smiles during an outdoor interview.]
In November 1972—mere months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade—CBS aired two Maude episodes collectively called “Maude’s Dilemma.” The title character, played by Bea Arthur, was pregnant and mulling an abortion, which had been legalized in New York. The network was pummeled with critical letters, and protesters even laid on the ground to block producer Norman Lear’s car. Rich Polk / Getty Images

On May 10, following the passage of Georgia’s near-total abortion ban, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted that women should launch a sex strike. The suggestion of a Lysistrata-style stoppage of carnal relations spread like wildfire.

While, as the Washington Post‘s Elizabeth Bruenig wrote, “it isn’t clear that anyone ever did join Milano in refusing to join their lovers in bed,” it ignited discussion about whether or how Americans should use their purchasing power to protest the nation’s most draconian abortion laws. A handful of film production companies announced they wouldn’t site future productions in the Peach State. Then, women film workers there asked Hollywood not to boycott. And after the passage of Alabama’s total abortion ban, Colorado and Maryland officials have prohibited some state employee travel there and, in Maryland’s case, are now reviewing its pension investments in the state. Hashtags #BoycottAlabama and #LeaveAlabama trended on Twitter.

Larry Glickman, a Cornell University historian and author of the book Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, said it’s no surprise that abortion bans are generating boycott talk.

He noted that boycotts are a critical part of U.S. civic behavior. Americans have long accepted the idea of this nation as a consumer society, since before the republic even existed—and have also accepted that money is power. Think about the Boston Tea Party; how abolitionists urged consumers to shun syrup and candy made with slave-manufactured sugar; civil rights boycotts of segregated transportation in Tallahassee, Florida, and Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s; and the United Farm Workers campaign that made millions of Americans stop eating grapes picked by exploited workers.

The fruit of such history—in the aggregate—is a modern public dedicated to pocket-book pressure. In 2016 research about boycotts, Kyle Endres and Costas Panagopoulos found that 35 percent of Americans polled had shopped, or not shopped, due to moral or ethical beliefs in the last year.

On any given day in the United States, according to Glickman, hundreds of boycotts are underway. Boycotts are varied in their causes, targets, tactics, scale, and outcomes. They can target individuals, corporations, states, or small businesses for short bursts of time or sustained periods. And they are employed across the political spectrum, by conservatives or progressives alike, and many have focused on reproductive health.

What Makes Success?

Most boycotts fail, said Glickman, largely because most of us don’t know about them. But different people are activated by different things; only a relatively small number are driven by a “general humanitarian outlook, saying doing something is right.” Every boycott has to overcome lack of awareness and consumer complacency, the people who “will say, ‘I have nothing to do with it,'” whatever “it” may be. A successful boycott implicates and sensitizes consumers about their place in the grand scheme of things, using ideas of proper moral behavior and social shaming.

Many boycotts aim for an organization’s bottom line, counting every dollar withheld or subtracted as a greenback victory. But the stakes aren’t always financial. In cases such as Georgia’s, economic impact may matter less than engaging new people, raising an issue’s visibility, or sullying the state’s brand, he said.

“It’s more likely [public relations damage] will happen in Georgia. I’ve seen celebrities come out and say they won’t work there. And so then, some people will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know many movies were made in Georgia.’ And then they think, ‘I like to go the movies”—a moment in which they may be spurred to action.

Glickman continued: “If there is a long-term boycott, this won’t bankrupt the state or the industry. Some people may call their representative or go to a meeting. But it may not change a policy. No social movement achieves all its goals in one fell swoop.”

Often, the most effective boycotts are highly local, with a specific target that has a relatively small pool of supporters. It could be the neighborhood restaurant whose business dries up after a controversy.

Still, boycotts of entire states aren’t unheard of—or more likely to be unsuccessful.

The NAACP boycotted South Carolina starting in 2000, due to the flying of the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol. During that time, not one NCAA championship game was played there. But the flag wasn’t retired until 2015, when Dylann Roof shot and killed worshippers at a prominent Black church in Charleston. That boycott cost South Carolina millions, but state leadership was willing to take the hit and resist pressure for almost 20 years.

In Georgia, the passage of a 2016 law that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against people of different faiths resulted in one company jumping ship to Nevada. Public outcry and the threat of others pulling out prompted then-Gov. Nathan Deal (R) to veto the measure, to the censure of GOP conservatives.

When former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed into law a 2016 “bathroom bill” requiring trans people to use restrooms matching the gender identity they were assigned at birth, a boycott cost the state an estimated $500 million and jobs.

Reproductive Rights and Refusal 

While those boycotts targeted states and policy, hundreds of anti-abortion-related boycotts have focused on advertising, construction of abortion clinics, companies that dispose of medical waste from those clinics, moving national conferences from states that recently passed abortion restrictions, distribution of medication abortion drugs, Planned Parenthood’s corporate donors, and even banks with pro-choice board members.

In November 1972—mere months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade—CBS aired two Maude episodes collectively called “Maude’s Dilemma.” The title character, played by Bea Arthur, was pregnant and mulling an abortion, which had been legalized in New York. The network was pummeled with critical letters, and protesters even laid on the ground to block producer Norman Lear’s car. When rerun time came the next fall, the network struggled to fill commercial slots and a letter from the United States Catholic Conference urged CBS affiliates to decline to broadcast the episode; at least 25 stations of the almost 200 that regularly aired the show backed out.

Companies that bought advertising in shows with abortion storylines also felt the pressure. In May 1989, a made-for-TV NBC movie Roe v. Wade chronicled the national legalization of abortion. The Pro-Life Action League, headed by Joe Scheidler, proposed a six- to eight-month boycott of General Foods for buying commercials for its Maxwell House coffee brand. It’s unclear whether it actually occurred—often the threat of a boycott is enough to provoke some concession. But the network reportedly lost $1 million in ad money by offering deeply discounted commercial time, selling spots at the bargain-basement prices of $50,000 to $75,000; prices for premium high-traffic airtime could reach $175,000.

Still, the movie made it on air, it led ratings in its time slot, and many advertisers shrugged. Products such as Lady Speed deodorant and Mrs. Dash stuck with advertising during the show. A company official explained to a newspaper that persisting with the commercials was about the bottom line: “We thought the numbers were good and the price was right. We were not making a social statement supporting anything,” said Allan Linderman, a vice president at the Alberto-Culver Company at the time.

Media boycotts may seem distant and removed from individual consumer action; abortion opponents arguably have found more success in hyper-targeted, direct forms of protest that can affect abortion access.

While more and more people are having abortions via pill, the drug mifepristone was the subject of a trans-Atlantic controversy. A 1988 editorial in the Nation acknowledged that the drug’s opponents had found an activist sweet spot and Big Pharma’s Achilles heel: “If the right-to-lifers cannot picket every gynecologist and every drugstore, they can target companies that manufacture RU 486.”

Throughout much of the 1990s, the National Right to Life Committee waged periodic boycotts, designed to stop the French maker of RU 486, Roussel-Uclaf, from introducing it on this side of the ocean. It urged its supporters to pass on the company’s other non-abortion products, including protesting the introduction of the now-popular allergy drug Allegra. RU 486 (which the organization called “human pesticide”) made up such a small share of Rousell-Uclaf’s business—and too many of its other drugs were at risk—that leadership balked at defying anti-choice boycotters. Given the pushback and fears that a politicized Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would not OK the drug for U.S. use, the company refused to license the drug for use in this country. Rights to produce it were eventually transferred to one of the original researchers and then the Population Council. Later, a coalition banded together to tackle U.S. production and distribution.

The FDA finally pronounced mifepristone as safe and effective, and for the U.S. market, in 2000. The National Right to Life News marked the development in an article titled “Pro-Life Efforts on RU486 Not a Failure,” from October that year. The anti-abortion publication sounded a sanguine note to a disappointing outcome:

“It was remarkable that approval of RU486 took as long as it did. That approval did take seven and a half years (11 years, if you include the work of the pro-life Bush Administration, which thwarted pro-abortion efforts) is a testimony to the hard work and vigilance of pro-lifers who participated in the consumer product boycott, distributed the fact sheets, wrote the letters to the editor, and keep themselves informed and up to date.”

As the Nation editorial had stated years earlier, “a disciplined minority” could have its way for a spell, if not forever. And the best way to counter that, it opined, was that “pro-choice Americans must learn from AIDS activists like the members of ACT-UP to pressure pharmaceutical companies and F.D.A. If we don’t do it, no one will.”Sociologist and contributor Carole Joffe told Rewire.News “there have been numerous local boycotts by construction companies and all kinds of vendors [that do business with them]—which can make things very difficult for clinics, though they always seem to figure out a workaround …. When I interviewed the staff of Dr. [George] Tiller‘s clinic after his assassination, they told me of numerous local vendors that would not deal with them—pizza delivery restaurants, local cab companies, waste hauling, and so on.”

Planned Parenthood clinics have been particular targets. In 2003, Austin, Texas, concrete supplier Chris Danze sent letters to other contractors, informing them that a new construction project was going to be an “abortion chamber.” A major contractor jumped ship, and the plumber bailed after installing pipes in the foundation. Churches joined the fray. They made clear that any contractor who worked on the clinic wouldn’t be considered for church gigs, a lucrative segment of the construction business.

Workarounds can be costly and disrupt business. As Joffe noted, Catholic opposition dogged the construction of a New Orleans Planned Parenthood facility. In the largely Catholic city, an archbishop wrote a 2014 letter warning that construction companies that took jobs building the facility would probably find future work hard to find: “The archdiocese, including its churches, schools, apartments for the elderly and nursing homes, will strive in its privately funded work not to enter into business relationships with any person or organization that participates in actions that are essential to making this abortion facility a reality.” The threat amounted to a hard-to-break anti-abortion boycott and delayed the clinic opening by months; it finally opened in June 2016.

A popular target, Planned Parenthood featured in another national boycott, this one launched by the now-defunct conservative protestant umbrella group Christian Action Council, which later morphed into the Care Net crisis pregnancy center organization. But that time, in 1990, the Council aimed at corporations that donated to Planned Parenthood: American Express, Prudential insurance, Citicorp, and others. No philanthropic gift was too small to land a company on the list: American Express had given $7,500 out of $16 million in donations in 1989.

In some cases, the mere presence of an abortion-rights supporter in a setting that wasn’t explicitly about reproductive rights was enough to launch small-scale boycotts. When a former Michigan state representative, Alma Wheeler Smith, was appointed to the board of University Bank in Ann Arbor in 2004, a press release noted that she made comments opposing bans on the later-abortion procedure anti-choicers deceptively call “partial-birth abortion.” That release triggered an email alert of a Catholic law student who started a letter campaign urging others to avoid the bank. Ultimately, to preserve its relationship with its anti-abortion customers, the lending institution released its own statement that it didn’t endorse Smith’s view. And in 2016, the outdoorsy clothing company Lands’ End raised the ire of anti-choice shoppers by including an interview with feminist Gloria Steinem in its catalog—an interview that didn’t include any reference to abortion. The company got it from both sides; its apology and expunging of the interview from its website pro-choice hackles.

But boycotts aren’t always anti-abortion actions, and many pro-choice ones emerged as responses to new legislation limiting abortion access.

In 1991, Utah’s state chapter of the National Organization for Women called for a boycott of its own state when legislators passed a restrictive abortion law. In that same year, the 1,000-member Society for Neuroscience was roiled by a vote to decide whether it would cancel an impending New Orleans conference—and another one five years in the future—because the state passed anti-abortion legislation. Members debated whether a group of researchers should be dabbling in politics and how far the organization should go.

“It opens up a family of questions,” said Thomas Carew, who was at Yale at the time, to Science‘s Marcia Barinaga. “Do we not go to states that have gun control policies we don’t like, or that don’t have drug programs, or housing programs?”

Other professional organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), nixed future meetings in New Orleans. Said one neuroscientist, according to Barinaga: “Other societies that are a little more ostrich-like may wake up and say, ‘Look what neuroscience did. Maybe, we should be thinking about that too.'”

But one of the most creative pro-choice boycott movements happened in Idaho in 1990. In that year, the state legislature passed a bill that would ban all abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, fetal anomaly, or when a pregnancy endangers the health and life of the woman. Like Alabama’s total abortion ban, it was explicitly written to directly challenge Roe v. Wade.

Activists worked to sway then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, an anti-choice Democrat, to veto the bill with an alarming threat to the state’s signature crop: potatoes. The National Organization for Women and other pro-choice groups banded together to organize a lockout of the then-$630-million-dollar industry. In one of the campaign’s most memorable moments, a group called 10,000 Pounds of Potatoes Today dropped five tons of the starchy vegetable on the Capitol steps.

And as boycotts do, it attracted counter-protests, which mobilized under slogans such as “Pro-life, Pro-spud” and “If you love life, eat Idaho potatoes.”

Apparently, Andrus was pro-spud. He was against efforts to make his state a laboratory for onerous precedent-setting abortion restrictions—”Somebody thought Idaho looked like a patsy. I submit to you: Idaho is not a patsy.” He vetoed the measure.