The cautious first steps by companies in response to new state-level laws on abortion and LGBTQ issues highlight the unprecedented, nationwide challenges that businesses could now face with the leaked draft opinion overturning the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade.
The news this week caught corporate America off-guard, resulting in a barrage of worried emails and phone calls trailing into the night as corporate officials grappled with the realization that the slew of state abortion laws were simply dress rehearsals for a bigger, nationwide policy shift.
“The communication with corporate parties has just been nonstop,” said Jen Stark, senior director at Tara Health Foundation, an investment firm focused on gender and racial equity. “Companies that were gearing up for impact in June are feeling the reality set in now.”
GOP’s cozy ties with big business unravel as DeSantis unloads on Disney
The ruling comes as many U.S. companies in the last two years have grown accustomed to pressure from customers and employees asking companies to take a stand on sensitive social issues — topics that corporate leaders might have ignored in the past. Major firms reacted to Black Lives Matter protests and fallout from the Jan. 6 insurrection, pledging to fight racism or halting donations to politicians who didn’t vote to certify the 2020 election results.
But a court ruling that threatens to curtail abortion rights in half of the country would confront companies with unusual challenges.
Businesses with workers spread coast to coast might face logistical hurdles to providing equal access to health care for workers in Texas vs. California. Entire parts of the country might be ruled in or out for new development and investment. Some companies might struggle to attract new hires to states with abortion bans, while other employees might seek out work only in those same areas.
“This issue is going to force a lot of companies to take a side,” said Laura Gitman, chief operating officer of the nonprofit business consultants BSR.
A preview of what could happen arrived last year when the Supreme Court narrowly upheld a restrictive Texas abortion law, which effectively banned abortion in the state after six weeks of pregnancy.
The Supreme Court’s draft opinion on overturning Roe v. Wade, annotated
Several companies followed the case with public promises to help their workers travel out of state to obtain an abortion, including Apple and Amazon. Amazon’s executive chairman Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Uber and Lyft said they would help with legal expenses for workers facing penalties for helping people access abortion. But many other large firms stayed silent.
Access to abortion is important to workers, according to a new poll from the Tara Health Foundation and Morning Consult. Working adults by a 2-to-1 margin said they would prefer to live in a state where abortion is legal and accessible, rather than illegal and inaccessible, according to the poll, conducted in March of a national sample of 2,210 adults. It also reported that 71 percent of respondents said a state’s social policies should be a factor in a decision to move there.
As states have tightened abortion restrictions in recent years — including in Georgia, Missouri and Alabama — companies have faced increased pressure from shareholders on these topics, too.
Already this year, shareholders have filed a record number of proposals asking companies to examine business risks from any restrictive abortion laws or to study how donations to so-called “anti-choice politicians” aligns with corporate commitments to inclusion.
“Now I think there are going to be way more investors filing on this issue,” said Marcela Pinilla, director of sustainable investing at Zevin Asset Management.
Roberts directs investigation into leaked draft of abortion opinion
Despite calls from employees and shareholders, few companies appear eager to talk about abortion.
“There are few issues that are more divisive than abortion,” said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth’s Tusk School of Business.
Major business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce declined Tuesday to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on the leaked court decision.
San Francisco-based Yelp, the online business review website, was one of the few outspoken firms. The company said in a statement it opposed overturning Roe v. Wade and warned that the ruling would have “a seismic impact on our society and economy.” Another San Francisco-based company, clothing firm Levi Strauss, said in a statement that business leaders need to support reproductive right “including abortion” and called it “a critical business issue.”
Two years ago, a chorus of corporate leaders spoke out against the surge of state abortion laws.
Executives from more than 180 companies — including Twitter, The Body Shop and Yelp — signed a letter calling abortion restrictions “bad for business.” That same year, a series of Hollywood studios — including Netflix, The Walt Disney Co. and WarnerMedia — warned that a new abortion bill in Georgia could push them to stop filming in the state.
Companies also took public stands on voting rights, such as when Delta Air Lines and Major League Baseball criticized Georgia’s new restrictive voting law last year. Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado over the issue.
For now, the threat of a massive change to abortion laws nationwide remains theoretical. The Supreme Court still has not released a final court opinion. And it is unclear when that will occur, although many court observers had expected the news to arrive in June.
Some consumers and employees may be expecting companies to take a lead on this topic, said Richard Levick, chairman of public relations firm Levick.
“They are looking to corporations as one of the last lines to defend democracy,” he said. “That is a role corporations have not felt since World War II.”
The unease that abortion causes companies is hard to miss, even among firms that appeared to have gone out of their way to help workers skirt the new limits.
When Citigroup in March said it would help its Texas employees travel for out-of-state abortion services, abortion rights supporters applauded. And the finance giant seemingly shrugged off a threat by a state GOP representative to punish the company by blocking it from underwriting municipal bonds.
Corporate America’s $50 billion promise
But one month later, Citigroup Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser seemed to downplay the company’s actions.
“I want to be clear that this benefit isn’t intended to be a statement about a very sensitive issue,” Fraser said at the company’s annual shareholders meeting, responding to a series of audience questions on the abortion travel aid.
She said Citigroup just wanted all workers to have the same health benefits.
“We respect everyone’s view on this subject,” Fraser said.
Corporate shareholders meetings provide a rare venue for putting the abortion question directly to company officials.
TJX Companies, which owns TJ Maxx clothing stores, is dealing with a shareholder proposal asking the firm to start reporting on the risk from restrictions on reproductive rights.
The proposal came from Zevin — Pinilla’s firm — and Trillium Asset Management. The proposal noted that 40 percent of the company’s U.S. stores were located in states where abortion might become illegal if Roe v. Wade is overturned, due to so-called trigger bills.
“Should that occur,” the proposal read, “TJX may find it more difficult to recruit employees to locations where abortion is outlawed.”
They also pointed out the potential harm to the company’s finances, brand and reputation.
It was the business case — not a social or religious one — for why banning abortion might be a bad idea.
Corporate America, critical of restrictive voting bills, remains largely silent on Texas abortion ban
TJX’s board of directors recommended its shareholders vote against the proposal. The company’s annual meeting is in June. The company declined to comment.
Walmart faces a similar shareholder’s proposal ahead of its June annual meeting.
“Should Roe v. Wade be weakened or overturned, as is widely anticipated, Walmart employees will face challenges accessing abortion care,” read the proposal from Clean Yield Asset Management, noting that 60 percent of Walmart’s U.S. stores are located in states with Roe v. Wade trigger bills.
Walmart’s directors recommended voting against the proposal, too, writing, “we believe our company is a great place to work for women, with benefits plans and programs that are competitive and that support the physical, emotional, and financial well-being of all our associates.”
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.
Abortion-related shareholder proposals have become an increasingly popular tactic in the last three years, said Shelley Alpern of Rhia Ventures, a venture capital fund focused on reproductive and maternal health, who helped put together a recent proposal at Charter Communications.
No abortion-related proposal has won over a majority of shareholders. One abortion risk proposal at Pfizer was approved by 47 percent of shareholders last year, she said.
After all the attention that abortion rights has generated in recent years, companies shouldn’t be surprised that abortion access is now a business issue, Alpern said.
“They’ve been hemming and hawing and delaying on this for last several years. Companies hate controversy, and they’ve been putting off a reckoning for long as possible,” she said.
“But now, the hour is here.”