Is This Working?: ‘Companies can no longer look the other way’: Is it time for corporate America to throw down the gauntlet on abortion?

Welcome to Is This Working?, a column about the future of work through the lens of gender. That’s a question many workers, particularly women, are asking nearly two years into a pandemic that has strained many systems to their breaking point, laid bare longstanding inequities, and prompted people to reevaluate what they want and need from work. 

In this first installment, we’ll dig into how companies are responding to the tenuous ground on which Roe v. Wade now stands, and how they might use their clout to ensure their own workers’ access to abortion services and effect broader policy change. Regardless of a CEO’s personal stance, the issue has recruitment and retention implications for most companies vying for talent in today’s tight labor market.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December on the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that would ban almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, far earlier than the current “viability” standard of about 23 or 24 weeks. The state has also formally asked the court to overturn Roe.  

A decision isn’t expected until summer, but conservative justices appeared open to upholding the 15-week ban, sending cheers through the anti-abortion movement, which believes life begins at conception, and instilling fear in abortion-rights supporters who worry decisions about abortion access could soon be left entirely to individual states. Twenty-six states are either certain or likely to swiftly ban abortion in the event that Roe is reversed or weakened, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports access to abortion.

Of course, a post-Roe future is already a reality for many folks in the American South and Midwest, where clinic closures, restrictive state laws, logistical constraints and cost prevent many people from accessing abortion services. Abortion restrictions disproportionately impact lower-income people, people of color and other historically marginalized groups, studies show.

When Texas’s near-total abortion ban went into effect last year, a great many companies stayed silent, despite having previously weighed in on issues like voting rights.

But Roe’s uncertain future, along with a flurry of state-level abortion restrictions in recent years, has spurred some companies to engage on the issue.

A coalition of abortion-rights groups in 2019, with backing from the Tara Health Foundation, which works to advance the health of women and girls and supports abortion-rights groups, signed on more than 180 companies including Bloomberg L.P., Slack, Reddit, Square (now known as Block

), Zoom

and Ben & Jerry’s

to a “Don’t Ban Equality” statement proclaiming that restrictive abortion laws ran counter to their values and were bad for business. The statement ran as a full-page New York Times ad.

Also in 2019, Netflix

and Disney

threatened to pull projects from Georgia, a film and TV hub, over its currently court-challenged law that would ban abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

When Texas’s near-total abortion ban went into effect last year, a great many companies stayed silent, despite having previously weighed in on issues like voting rights. The Supreme Court later allowed Texas’s law to stand

But the Texas law, which deputizes private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” a banned abortion, also presented “a wakeup call for corporate America,” says Jen Stark, the senior director of corporate strategy at the Tara Health Foundation. And some companies did speak up.

‘This is your workforce. This is not like you can ignore what is a fundamental healthcare-access issue for literally half the population.’

— Erika Seth Davies, CEO of Rhia Ventures

A new “Don’t Ban Equality in Texas” campaign with backing from Netflix, Patagonia, Lyft

and others circulated last year, and some companies even put money behind their opposition: The CEO of Dallas-based Match Group

said she would establish a fund to help employees who needed to travel out of state for abortions, and Lyft pledged $1 million to Planned Parenthood and created a legal-defense fund for drivers sued under the Texas law, with Uber

following suit on the latter. 

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported in September that Apple

CEO Tim Cook had told workers the company was looking into possibly assisting the legal battle against the Texas ban, and that its health plan “would help pay for” employees who needed to travel out of Texas for abortions. (Apple didn’t reply to requests for comment or an interview.)

On the flip side, John Gibson, the now former CEO of gaming company Tripwire Interactive, tweeted last fall that as a self-described “pro-life game developer,” he was “proud” of the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the Texas abortion ban. The tweet drew so much blowback, including a threat to cancel contracts, that he stepped down days later. (Gibson later said Tripwire brass had treated him “with great care and dignity” and encouraged customers to continue supporting the company despite his exit.) 

The case for corporations taking action

Corporations in the past have gotten “a pass” on trying to mitigate the impact of abortion restrictions on their workforce and taking a public stand, because courts have stepped in to prevent many such restrictions, though not all, from being fully implemented, Stark said. Now, she said, “it’s gotten so bad that companies can no longer look the other way.”

After all, access to abortion and contraception is an economic and workforce issue. The ability to plan or delay having kids has clear implications for educational attainment, career advancement and labor-force participation, not to mention financial security and debt. Majorities of college-educated workers also want their employers to speak up or donate in support of abortion access, and say state-level bans like the one in Texas would dissuade them from applying for jobs there, a survey commissioned by Tara found.

“This is your workforce,” said Erika Seth Davies, the CEO of Rhia Ventures, a nonprofit that makes direct investments through its venture fund in companies innovating in reproductive and maternal health. “This is not like you can ignore what is a fundamental healthcare-access issue for literally half the population.”

Companies can ‘do right by their workforce, mind their policies and practices, speak out in meaningful ways, and mind their political giving and policy engagement.’

— Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy at the Tara Health Foundation

Because healthcare access in the U.S. is largely determined by insurance coverage that’s tied to employment status, “companies have a responsibility” to ensure that their workforce has access to a full range of healthcare options — and that includes abortion, Davies added.

Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who studies the impact of social movements on corporate social responsibility, wonders if companies will actually be willing to put their money where their mouth is — especially if abortion access becomes even more dependent on geographical location in the near future.

“Will they be less willing to move [to states with restrictive abortion policies] in the future, if they know that their employees will have this right restricted?” he said. “Will their female employees object to that?”

If employees push back, “it may very well shape not just what corporations say about the issue, but also what they do about the location of their future offices,” King said. “The latter is certainly a costly move for them, because it would limit their ability to move wherever they want across the country — but if they want to be competitive on the human capital front, it may be what they need to do.”

What companies can do

What do defenders of abortion rights want companies to do? Broadly speaking, they can “do right by their workforce, mind their policies and practices, speak out in meaningful ways, and mind their political giving and policy engagement,” Stark said.

More specifically, Rhia Ventures, whose funders include the Tara Health Foundation, recommends that companies affirm their support of workers who need access to abortion, including transgender-inclusive care; conduct a self-audit to find and remedy barriers workers face in accessing reproductive healthcare including abortion (like limitations in plans or in-network services offered); customize insurance and benefits if they self-insure; cover travel costs for employees who need to travel across state lines for abortions; and go beyond what the Affordable Care Act requires in insuring contraception options. 

Companies with employees operating out of multiple states should also make sure workers in states with more-restrictive abortion laws can receive the same access to benefits as workers in states with more supportive abortion climates, Davies added.

On the public-policy front, businesses can educate lawmakers on the impacts of policies that limit abortion access; sign on to amicus curiae briefs related to reproductive health; and conduct due diligence on political giving to ensure none of it contradicts the company’s stated commitments or values, according to Rhia

In coordination with institutional investors, Rhia Ventures filed 14 shareholder proposals directly related to reproductive rights for the 2022 proxy season; 10 address the target companies’ political spending in support of anti-abortion politicians, while four focus on companies’ preparedness in the event that Roe is overturned.

As for employees who carry pregnancies to term because they were unable to access an abortion, Stark noted there was “an ongoing unmet need for companies to revisit the maternal health and birth equity programs that they offer.” But she added that maternal-health programs and policies and access to abortion care are not “mutually exclusive” needs.

“What are the resources or the benefits that are in place to support pregnant people through that process and after having carried their pregnancy to term?” Davies added, citing mental-health benefits, insurance coverage of doulas and midwives, and paid leave. “What are the things that are in place under any circumstance to support that entire cycle?”

Stay tuned later this week for part two of this column, where we’ll take a look at how some individual companies are preparing for a dramatic change in state-level abortion policy should the Supreme Court gut or reverse Roe.

This post was originally published on Market Watch

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