Politics

Boycotts Work. An Abortion Rights Boycott in Georgia Probably Wouldn’t.

Women protest Georgia's anti-abortion "heartbeat" bill at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on May 7.
Women protest Georgia’s anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on May 7.
Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

In the days since Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill that will criminalize abortions performed after six weeks of pregnancy, several actors and filmmakers have said they won’t work in the state while the law remains on the books. (It will take effect in January 2020 if a court doesn’t block it.) Georgia offers generous tax breaks for production studios, making it a popular destination for movies and TV shows. In 2016, 17 of the 100 best-performing U.S. feature films were made in Georgia, more than any other state or country. Hollywood studios spend a few billion dollars in Georgia each year.

Calls for people and industries to cease doing business with entire states have become a popular tactic among progressives in recent years, and for good reason. Boycotts and threatened boycotts seemed to convince Republicans in both Georgia and Indiana to back down from legislation allowing discrimination against LGBTQ people. After North Carolina passed a law in 2016 prohibiting transgender people from using public restrooms that aligned with their gender identities, the state’s economy took a $400 million hit as companies canceled planned expansions, conventions switched to venues across state lines, and tourists canceled trips. Those actions clearly played a major role in the state Legislature’s move to repeal the law as well as voters’ decision to oust Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, one of its biggest defenders.

Given the success of those actions, it’s perhaps surprising that Georgia-based reproductive rights activists and grass-roots organizations have said they oppose an economic boycott. They say that cutting ties with the state is unlikely to convince conservative political leaders to budge on abortion and will unquestionably harm lower-income workers who rely on production studios for jobs and investment in the service sector. NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia and other groups are praising Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams for recommitting to their plan to film an upcoming HBO series in the state. The directors have promised to donate their episodic producer fees from the series to advocacy organizations that are fighting Georgia’s rollback of women’s rights. NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia also retweeted a thread that listed the names of Georgia-based organizations to which concerned observers could donate, “instead of smugly tweeting from a distance about how fucked up Georgia is or how certain industries (that hire a ton of women, poc, and queer people) should abandon the state entirely.” (NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia did not return a request for comment, and the organization’s national counterpart declined to comment on the record.)

These calls for continued investment aren’t totally unfamiliar. Some progressives in North Carolina said similar things in 2016. Queer organizers worried that the harms of a boycott would be disproportionately shouldered by already-marginalized people, including queer people, who stood to lose income and social services if North Carolina’s economy tanked. Trans vocalist Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! decided to keep her planned North Carolina concert on the books. “It’s about being in solidarity with people there who are against this or who are trans themselves—they can’t boycott their own state,” she said. “That makes it all the more important to me to go there and be seen as a trans person and use whatever resources I have to draw attention to it and point people in the proper direction of how to make changes and help.”

In Slate, a Raleigh-based writer argued that socially liberal companies like Amazon and Apple have been important financial and political backers for LGBTQ rights and protections in their home states. Urging companies that support LGBTQ rights to cancel their plans to expand would “block resources that made a huge difference in one state from another state clearly in need, undermining equality across the region,” she wrote.

The question of whether the North Carolina boycott was successful remains open; the state replaced its initial law with one that denies LGBTQ people employment and housing protections, and forbids local governments from enacting non-discrimination laws. But even if you believe the North Carolina boycott was an unqualified victory for trans rights, and even if you don’t care that capitalism protects the most powerful players from the worst effects of a boycott, there is no reason to believe that a boycott of Georgia would work in quite the same way.

For one thing, abortion rights and trans rights do not make for an easy one-to-one comparison. In conservative communities, it’s a lot easier to create sympathetic messaging around trans people and restroom access—they deserve equal rights; everyone needs to use the bathroom—than around abortion rights. Some people will never be persuaded that trans people deserve gender-appropriate access to public accommodations. But the equal rights argument for abortion doesn’t work at all with people who believe that women and men should have fundamentally different roles, or those who think “fetal rights” should take precedence over women’s rights, especially in a party that’s used anti-abortion rhetoric to get its voters to the polls for decades.

Right-wingers also stoke irrational fear about what might happen when a trans person enters a bathroom. Anti-choice groups, on the other hand, incite anger about what they know happens with every abortion: an abortion, which they believe is literally murder. There are few, if any, permanent advocacy groups devoted to keeping trans people out of gender-appropriate bathrooms; there are hundreds devoted to the anti-abortion cause. A not-insignificant number of right-wing politicians have made abortion and its wholesale elimination the main focus of their platforms.

All of which is to say: Conservative political leaders have a lot more incentive to back down from anti-trans legislation than anti-abortion legislation. (This is especially true with Georgia’s new abortion ban, which passed the two branches of the state Legislature by wide margins.) It’s also worth noting that public opinion on LGBTQ rights is trending steadily upward, while support for abortion rights varies widely by state—Georgia is significantly more conservative than the U.S. average—and has remained relatively constant since the mid-’90s. Corporations, which are by their nature risk-averse, know they’re on the right side of history when they support LGBTQ protections. The jury’s out on where the country will land on abortion.

But the main reason why Georgia’s governor and state Legislature are unlikely to respond to a North Carolina–style boycott, no matter the economic cost, is that this abortion law doesn’t just concern Georgia. It’s a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, an invitation for the Supreme Court to take up the case once Georgia inevitably gets sued. Kemp and his fellow Georgia Republicans want to prevent women from making their own decisions around pregnancy and childbirth, yes. But they also see themselves as heroes in an accelerating nationwide movement to end the constitutional right to abortion care. What’s a few hundred million dollars lost, at most, in the fight to end what Republican politicians regularly call a “holocaust” or “genocide”?

With this in mind it makes sense that some organizers in Georgia, who know the contours of their local politics and economies better than any outsider ever could, might decide that a large-scale boycott would hurt the state’s women and their families more than it would help them. That calculus is an essential part of the reproductive justice framework that most contemporary activists use to shape their views. The doctrine holds that legal rights to reproductive choice form just one of many pillars of a woman’s bodily autonomy and ability to live a life free from undue hardship. For some women—especially lower-income women, who may not be able to afford abortion care—a legal ban on abortion will not be the biggest obstacle to making independent decisions about their own lives. No Georgia woman should have to choose between her right to govern her own medical care and her ability to earn a living. No would-be boycotters from out of state should make that decision for her, either.