Some professional organizations are facing pressure to rethink their annual meetings in light of state abortion restrictions passed following the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24.
A number of economists have asked the American Economic Association (AEA) to relocate their annual conference scheduled for January in New Orleans, as well as the one slated for the following year in San Antonio. Both of these states enacted strict abortion bans after Roe was overturned, though they’ve been temporarily blocked by courts. On social media other professionals, including those in medical fields like public health and orthopedics, have expressed similar concerns about events scheduled to take place in Georgia and Tennessee. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology canceled its 2023 annual meeting slated to take place in New Orleans before a final decision on Roe was announced, citing concerns over Louisiana’s abortion laws.
The rapidly changing landscape for abortion access presents a challenge for organizations seeking to restart in-person meetings after two years of largely virtual events during the pandemic. Changing the venue for a large conference can be costly for organizers, but gathering in locations where reproductive healthcare is compromised could pose a risk to attendees.
Concerns about inclusion, healthcare access
“To protect the health and wellbeing of all AEA members, I encourage the Executive Committee to relocate the 2023 and 2024 meetings, and to commit to holding future meetings in states where women’s rights to necessary pregnancy care are protected,” reads a letter signed by seven economists and shared by Pamela Jakiela, an economics professor at Williams College.
The appeal to the AEA explains that the organization’s annual meetings are an important networking opportunity for graduating PhD students, “and a necessary step in the process of obtaining an academic job in an economics department in the United States.” But the restrictions on reproductive healthcare in Louisiana “place an undue, differential burden on young women in the economics profession,” the letter argues, forcing them to consider the risk of needing medical care that is unavailable against the professional obligation of attending the meeting.
The AEA’s annual meeting, which is held in conjunction with a group of associations known as Allied Social Science Associations (ASSA), welcomes about 13,000 attendees each year to present research on general economics topics, as well as interview for jobs. The meetings were held virtually the past two years.
“I was pregnant during ASSA,” wrote Liz Ananat, an economics professor at Barnard College, on Twitter. “We cannot make pregnant people’s full inclusion in [economics] contingent on traveling to a place where they risk not receiving appropriate care in an emergency.”
The AEA has not responded to an inquiry about whether it will change the location of its upcoming conference. Though Louisiana’s abortion ban has been temporarily blocked, a hearing has been scheduled for July 8 to decide whether the injunction should continue. If the ban goes into effect, abortions in the state will be prohibited, with limited exceptions to protect the health of the mother.
New legal landscape poses challenges for event planning
Organizations that are just starting to recover from the Covid pandemic may not have the appetite to cancel or relocate big events right now, said Joan Eisenstodt, a consultant in the meetings and hospitality industry. Professional organizations often sign contracts for large annual meetings or conferences five to 10 years out, and cancellation damages can run into the millions of dollars, she said.
There is some indication that organizations have been preparing for the overturning of Roe. When Northstar Meetings Group surveyed 281 meeting and event planners from May 13-17, 43 percent said they expected state abortion laws to affect which sites they choose to host events. Of that group, more than 80 percent said they would favor states that allow abortion, while 54 percent reporting they will not meet in states with anti-abortion laws.
Government employees of Montgomery County, Maryland, have already been restricted from attending conferences and events in states without reproductive rights protections. County executive Mark Elrich, who made the decision following the June 24 Roe ruling, said he refused to provide funding to state economies demonstrating “a hostility to reproductive freedom.”
The overturning of Roe could pose a challenge not only for professional organizations and meeting planners, but also the cities and states that depend on their revenue. An estimated 13 percent of meetings and exhibitions held in the U.S. brought $10 million or more to their host destination in 2019, according to consumer data company Statista.
Convention and visitors bureaus in states that have already enacted abortion bans appear to be waiting to release any official statements on the potential impact of the laws on business. “We do not have enough information or knowledge of how the ruling affects Wisconsin to be able to offer a perspective,” said Rob Gard, the communications director for Destination Madison, which oversees the convention and visitors bureau for the Wisconsin town. Wisconsin clinics are no longer providing abortions after a ban dating back to 1849 was allowed to take effect, but the state’s Democratic governor has vowed to grant clemency to any doctors charged under the law. In Pierre, South Dakota, where abortion is banned with no exceptions for rape or incest, Tia Kafka, the CEO of the city’s chamber of commerce, said it was too early to tell how these laws will affect meetings, as their busy season starts in the fall.
Industry groups have faced pressure to move their annual meetings before, notably when states passed a number of “bathroom bills” targeting LGBTQ youth starting in 2017. Around that time some organizations started including clauses in their contracts allowing them to cancel events if state or local laws are passed that lead to discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. Eisenstodt said hotels and convention centers are often hesitant to include such clauses in their contracts, however, and they remain rare.
With Roe now overturned, professional associations like the AEA will have to consider not only how their bottom line could suffer if attendees don’t attend conferences held in anti-abortion states, but also whether they could be liable under new state laws seeking to punish individuals who “aid or abet” abortions.
“We’re in a world where a lot of people don’t think ahead,” said Eisenstodt, asking “if this happens, what will it mean to us?” She said she would encourage clients to think through “what if?” scenarios when they plan meetings, particularly if they’re looking at hosting in states with abortion bans.