The Liberals Threatening to Pick Up and Leave

How abortion could scramble American geography

Messy jigsaw puzzle pieces, each showing a small part of the United States map
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic; Getty

In 2016, American liberals threatened—half seriously—that they would move somewhere more progressive if Donald Trump won the presidential election. That spring, Spotify released a tongue-in-cheek playlist called “Moving up to Canada” with the description “Some of you might choose Canada this November … here’s the perfect soundtrack.” Now that the Supreme Court has issued the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, thus denying women the constitutional right to an abortion, the threat is back. It seems more serious and, at any rate, is much easier to carry out, because somewhere more progressive could be just across state lines, no expatriation required.

The Dobbs decision means that reproductive rights are left up to the states, resulting in drastic variation. In Maryland, most insurers are required to “cover abortion care services without a deductible, coinsurance, copayment, or any other cost-sharing requirement.” California has also removed out-of-pocket costs for abortion services. In Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and South Dakota, by contrast, abortion is illegal even if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest; the only exception is if the life of the mother is at risk, a distinction that is easily legislated but deadly in practice.

Since Dobbs, speculation about liberals abandoning anti-abortion states has multiplied on social media. The neuroscientist Bryan William Jones was one of many liberals who declared his intention to leave a red state (in his case, Utah) for one that respects reproductive rights. Such vows aren’t limited to Twitter, however. In a recent Leger/Atlantic poll of 1,001 American adults, 14 percent of respondents said that the end of Roe had them reconsidering where they lived, including 25 percent of people who voted for Joe Biden. Notably, 24 percent of respondents said that the political climate had factored into a previous decision to move.

This would hardly be the first time that political upheaval led Americans to vote with their feet. Black Americans fled racist violence in the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration; intolerance led Mormons to Utah and LGBTQ Americans to havens such as San Francisco and New York City. Crossing national borders is a much larger hurdle, but in the decade after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, The Journal of Negro History notes, 15,000 to 20,000 Black Americans entered Canada. More than a century later, tens of thousands of draft dodgers also entered Canada to avoid conscription in the Vietnam War.

I’m skeptical that abortion will similarly scramble the American urban landscape, however.

The first reason to doubt that abortion restrictions will cause Americans to move in large numbers is that they haven’t done so already. Even before Dobbs, access to reproductive health care varied widely across states. Mississippi’s harsh legal landscape had permitted just one provider to continue operations. In Arizona, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, state legislatures had enacted TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, which created onerous requirements for abortion providers. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “The number of Texas women whose closest abortion clinic was more than 100 miles away tripled” from 2013 to 2014 because of TRAP laws.

This divergence between red and blue states did not spur mass migration to the latter. In fact, the fastest-growing cities in 2020 were all in the Republican-dominated states of Texas, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, and Idaho. According to Pew, from 2010 to 2020, the states that experienced above-average population growth were Utah, Idaho, Texas, North Dakota, Nevada, and Florida.

Granted, Dobbs has made the difference between red and blue states starker, and the differences will likely become yet more extreme. Although for now many people can count on the ability to travel out of state to receive an abortion, for instance, this right is not absolutely safe. According to The Boston Globe, the National Right to Life Committee “has distributed model legislation that would criminalize as ‘trafficking’ the act of transporting a pregnant minor to obtain an abortion without a parent’s consent.” In fact, Senate Republicans have repeatedly introduced similar legislation over the years (in 2006, the measure passed the body with 14 Democrats joining 51 Republicans for a near-supermajority vote in favor), undermining claims that they simply want abortion left up to the states.

Already, some providers are bowing under the pressure of legal uncertainty by denying care, including in states that have not banned the procedure. Montana Public Radio reported recently that the state’s arm of Planned Parenthood has stopped providing abortion pills at their clinics to patients from states where trigger laws are in effect.

If the future is one in which interstate travel for abortion is not assured, in which returning to your home state after receiving an abortion can leave you open to harassment or prosecution by police, in which your cellphone and internet history can be seized as evidence against you, in which the chasm between North Dakota and Minnesota is larger than it already is—then more Americans might decide to pick up and leave.

Even in this extreme future, however, mass migration seems unlikely. Consider why people usually move. According to census data, the most commonly stated reasons Americans move are related to housing, family, and jobs. A couple now able to work remotely may switch states to find a bigger house that can accommodate a home office, for instance. The “other” category, which would include politically motivated migration, never tops 5.4 percent.

Abortion isn’t just a political issue, of course; it’s also an economic issue, as my colleague Annie Lowrey recently explained. But unlike racial, religious, or LGBTQ discrimination, the economic pain of losing access to abortion is not distributed over time. Instead it is concentrated at the moment of discovering an unwanted pregnancy, or when pregnant and facing a medical emergency, and potentially when making a decision about birth control. In these moments, moving is not the priority—health care is. An abortion-related move has to be forward-looking and hinged on a need that one might never have.

How heavily will American liberals weigh a possible future need against quality of life in the here and now? On the whole, left-leaning states have higher costs of living than right-leaning ones. Although wages may be higher in certain blue coastal cities, that premium is erased by the price of housing, transportation, child care, food, and other goods and services. One paper by the economists David Card, Jesse Rothstein, and Moises Yi found that larger and higher-earning areas (which tend to be Democratic) have much higher housing costs, “enough so to more than completely offset their larger effects on nominal earnings. Thus, movements to larger or to higher earnings locations mean reductions in real income.”

Although abortion is a common medical procedure, most women will never have one. But all women will need to keep up with the cost of living for wherever they choose to live. This is why declarations by Democratic governors that their states are “sanctuaries” or “safe havens” for women seeking abortion care ring hollow. They are havens in name only, if the fee for entry is a $700,000 home.

Instead of voting with our feet, we may be squarely in the era of voting via private association.

In March 2016, North Carolina passed a law requiring transgender people to use the bathrooms in public buildings, such as schools, that match their birth gender. National attention zeroed in on the state, which ultimately faced $3.7 billion in economic damages as companies and private associations withdrew their business. Notably, the NCAA pulled several basketball games from the state. Ultimately the pressure campaign seems to have worked, or at least contributed to the demise of the bathroom ban: The Republican governor lost to a Democrat in the next election, and the legislature repealed the law.

Echoing that controversy, abortion bans are leading companies and organizations to take action. A Texas start-up announced that it will hire outside the state and “have R&D facilities elsewhere” so that it can continue attracting top candidates; a film-production company in Arkansas cited Dobbs in saying it would leave the state; and economists are petitioning the American Economic Association to move its meetings out of New Orleans and San Antonio because Louisiana’s and Texas’s abortion restrictions “place an undue, differential burden on young women in the economics profession, who are forced to balance the risk of needing medical care … with their professional obligation to attend Annual Meetings.”

Whether widespread boycotts will emerge similar to the one against North Carolina will depend on many factors. One is worker pressure: Will the labor force at a particular company or in a particular industry push management to take a stand? Another is worker leverage: Does the labor force command significant market power? This is why tech firms—reliant on skilled, scarce, and left-leaning workers—have been some of the most politically outspoken companies in the past few years. Whether the boycotts succeed is another matter, which depends on the economic position of the targeted states. As long as Americans keep flocking to Sun Belt states with cheaper costs of living, Texas, Florida, and Arizona will continue to have a lot of bargaining power and are unlikely to suffer from their political decisions on abortion. That is, companies may be pressured from within to act, but if their workforce resides in Austin, they are limited in how much they can really respond. Republican states that aren’t growing significantly—or, like West Virginia and Mississippi, are actually losing residents—may have a lot more to worry about. Like people, companies may have political preferences, but money wins out.