To Boycott or Not? Academic Conferences Face Pressure to Avoid Abortion-Hostile States
Corinne Low, an assistant professor of business economics and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania, sat down with her colleagues last month to discuss what Low said was the year’s biggest event for economists: the Allied Social Sciences Association’s Annual Meeting, hosted by the American Economic Association. But they weren’t talking about presentations or forums or interviews. They were worried about the location.
The 2023 annual meeting was set to take place in New Orleans, where a
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Corinne Low, an assistant professor of business economics and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, sat down with her colleagues last month to discuss what Low said was the year’s biggest event for economists: the Allied Social Sciences Associations’ annual meeting, hosted by the American Economic Association. But they weren’t talking about presentations or forums or interviews. They were worried about the location.
The 2023 annual meeting was set to take place in New Orleans, where a Louisiana law banning nearly all abortions was about to take effect. The U.S. Supreme Court had just issued its decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, revoking the constitutional right to abortion that had been in place for nearly 50 years.
Many of Low’s colleagues had been pregnant at conferences. One had serious complications that required time in a hospital. They wondered if going to a state with restrictions on abortion would create disincentives for doctors to act to save pregnant women or their future fertility.
“The difference between if a doctor has to say, ‘I have to have a 99-percent chance the patient will die without intervention before I’m allowed to act,’ versus being able to say, ‘In my best medical judgment, the best thing to do is to act here’ — that difference is enormous,” Low said.
So Low and six of her colleagues drafted a letter to the economics association, demanding it relocate its 2023 meeting, and the 2024 meeting planned for San Antonio. They opened the letter to co-signers who vowed not to attend if the annual meeting was held in New Orleans while the abortion ban remained in place. The letter collected more than 1,000 co-signers by July 1.
And the AEA listened, Low said. The organization recommended that all first-round job-market interviews, a large appeal of the conferences, be held online. Now Low and her fellow economists are calling for the AEA conference to become fully hybrid.
“You wouldn’t choose a hotel that only has stairs and no elevator because it’s clear that that would be excluding some members,” Low said. “And you shouldn’t choose a place where certain people are differentially going to be unable to access health care.”
The AEA is among a number academic associations fielding members’ calls to take a stand for abortion rights by changing their conferences — which can be a boon for local economies — in states that ban or restrict the procedure. Some scholars have vowed to boycott and protest conferences in abortion-hostile states, calling on other academics to do the same. Some scholars in Southern states, however, question these tactics, advocating for academic organizations to give back to their host cities rather than abandon them.
The locations of some conferences are already making headlines in cities where officials worry that anti-abortion legislation could discourage tourism and events. The Kansas City Star reported on Tuesday that the National Association for College Admission Counseling told the city’s tourism bureau that it would no longer consider the city for its 2025 conference because of the state’s anti-abortion laws. A NACAC spokeswoman, Melanie M. Parra, said via email that conference organizers merely told the tourism bureau they were “pausing to weigh a range of factors” and that the article did not provide an accurate account of the organization’s negotiations with the city.
“NACAC’s leadership is planning to have longer-term conversations this summer about our process for choosing event locations, since sites are identified so far in advance,” Parra wrote.
I will not bring my research dollars or my expertise to places where I do not have rights.
Most conferences are scheduled years ahead and require copious contracts, several deposits, and a lot of planning. The American Association of Colleges and Universities has conferences planned five or six years in advance, said the organization’s president, Lynn Pasquerella, and backing out would cost upward of $90,000 — a cost she said would very likely have to be passed along to members. The AAC&U’s conference on general education, pedagogy, and Assessments will be held in New Orleans in February next year, and Pasquerella said the group has no intention of moving the conference. It’s not just about money; Pasquerella said the AAC&U is not a policy-making organization and tries not to take sides.
“We also are mindful of the fact that we serve a diverse group of members and state systems that have different political perspectives,” Pasquerella said. “We advocate for liberal education, the free exchange of ideas.”
That free exchange has, in the past, led the organization “to cross the picket line,” Pasquerella said. AAC&U has held conferences in hotels with workers striking outside and then arranged dialogues between management and the strikers.
“We turned our meeting into a forum for discussing the issues that were at the forefront of debate. So we try to use our meetings as educational spaces, rather than engaging in boycotts,” she said.
Pasquerella said her organization hasn’t taken a stance, but she and the other AAC&U leaders are discussing the issue at their meetings.
‘This Is the Leverage We Have’
While Pasquerella views choosing conference locations based on abortion access as inherently political, advocates like Low said it’s an issue of health above all else.
“This was not a political request that was being made, or a request for a political statement. Rather, this was about equity within our organization in terms of ensuring that we did not put pregnant people in a position where they had to choose between their physical safety and well-being and their career,” Low said.
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, echoed that sentiment. While the association does not have any events planned in states that ban abortion, Grossman said he would not consider hosting one in a state where abortion is illegal. For Grossman, it is an issue of equal rights, which include access to “appropriate and equal medical treatment” and are part of his organization’s member contracts.
“A law banning abortion makes it impossible for us to ask our members to convene,” Grossman said.
While Grossman said he does not view this as a political decision, the historical organization does often become embroiled in political conversations. AHA filed an amicus brief, a court document offering insight from an uninvolved but expert organization, in the Dobbs case, and in a joint statement with the Organization of American Historians, decried the decision as “inadequately” representing “the history of the common law, the significance of quickening in state law and practice in the United States, and the 19th-century forces that turned early abortion into a crime.” The majority opinion, which used history as an important factor, did not stand up to academic scrutiny, Grossman said.
“You have a decision where someone is using history to demonstrate certain principles and to create a context for a particular legal decision,” Grossman said. “And what we’re seeing is that the historical work in that decision did not meet professional standards.”
He also said that, even though he is taking a hard line on the location for future AHA conferences, it is a complicated issue where organizers have to weigh what they can do with what they should. He pointed to a 2019 plea from Stacey Abrams, the influential Georgia Democrat, that Hollywood, political allies, and business leaders not boycott her state after its legislature attempted to limit abortions before the Dobbs decision. Boycotts would only deprive working-class people of jobs, not influence state politics, Abrams said at the time.
Many scholars simply want to do what they can and use whatever leverage they can muster. And one of their sources of influence is conferences and conventions that can draw thousands of people to a city. “There aren’t a lot of things we can do,” Grossman said. “We don’t have a lot of money. We don’t have a lot of power. But we can do that.”
The Case Against Boycotts
A number of scholars took to Twitter to call for boycotts following the Supreme Court decision. The day it was announced, Rebecca A. Goetz, associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies at New York University, tweeted, “I will not be attending conferences or doing talks in states where abortion is not legal. Full stop. I will not bring my research dollars or my expertise to places where I do not have rights.”
Other scholars responded with a range of agreement and disagreement.
But some scholars from states limiting abortion view blanket statements like Goetz’s as a poor way to express dissent. Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, said she felt like these sorts of calls are a kind of abandonment.
“It divides people further, and it abandons entire regions that need help, not inaction,” Maddox wrote in an emailed statement. “Don’t abandon colleagues and cities because of systemic injustices.”
Maddox wrote that she wished the focus was on what they can do for host cities rather than the other way around. Since attending her first conference in 2015, Maddox wrote, she has been disappointed that conferences have not taken more responsibility in giving back to their host cities.
“We are people breezing in, relying heavily on service and gig workers for restaurant and hotel service, ride share, and more, and then leaving without a thought. This has become even more salient post the fall of Roe v. Wade,” Maddox wrote of the landmark case overturned last month when the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision. “Conferences could do a lot of good. So could academics in general. We just have to choose to do so.”
Some organizations are attempting to engage with host cities, as Maddox suggested. Callie S. Kalny, a doctoral student in the media, technology, and society program at Northwestern University, said she was relieved to read an email from the Society of Behavioral Medicine indicating that it would stick with its plans for a 2023 annual meeting in Phoenix, where abortion access is limited.
Kalny expected the email to say the conference would become virtual or be moved out of state, but the organization, instead, said it would put its energy and resources into engaging with the community and supporting Arizona-based advocacy groups. The society’s leadership explained that it had considered moving the conference, but doing so was logistically impractical.
It divides people further, and it abandons entire regions that need help, not inaction.
Margaret Schneider, president of the society, said that while the organization needed to be fiscally responsible, that was not a driving factor in the decision to keep the conference in Phoenix.
“We are all about using evidence to drive change, both at the individual level and at the organizational institutional-policy level. And so if we want to drive change, that requires engaging, not disengaging,” Schneider said.
Several members have informed the behavioral-medicine group that they will not attend the event, while others have expressed appreciation, like Kalny did. The ways the organization will engage with the community have yet to be determined, Schneider said.
Kalny, who was born and raised in northern Georgia and Appalachia, said she’s deeply familiar with the realities of living in a rural, abortion-hostile region. And as far as Kalny is concerned, blanket boycotts are unacceptable.
“That’s where my family is. My friends are there, my peers and my colleagues. And I’m just not willing to abandon them,” Kalny said.
Kalny studies health communications, and said she focuses primarily on improving health outcomes. She said that includes advancing the fight for reproductive justice everywhere, “not just in states where it’s convenient.”
“I don’t want it to get lost that there are millions of people living in these states where abortion is now illegal or restricted,” Kalny said. “And it just seems to me an opportunity to lean further in and to use our resources, our research, our knowledge, our skills to continue fighting for them and with them.”