The Supreme Court’s ruling Friday eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion puts unprecedented pressure on businesses to lead in reproductive rights, similar to how they’ve had to step up on mental health, caregiving, and racial justice in earnest over the past few years.
It’s an understatement to say that few business leaders have sought out this role. But reproductive rights, in addition to being essential legal protections, are undeniably a workplace issue that they shouldn’t ignore. Access to abortion is access to healthcare, and essential to the physical, emotional, and financial well-being and safety of women and pregnant people. A majority of Americans supports a legal right to an abortion, and polling suggests that about two-thirds of college-educated workers wouldn’t take a job in a state with an abortion ban. In what is still a tight job market, studies have shown clearly that retention and engagement suffer when employers don’t speak out publicly on issues workers believe are important.
Human-resources leaders are now scrambling to put together policies to support their employees. Friday’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will weigh most heavily on those who have already suffered the most in the pandemic—women, people of color, parents already facing soaring child-care costs and inadequate child-care leave policies, trans and nonbinary people who struggle to access reproductive care.
Companies that support their workers’ abortion rights risk being attacked by Republican politicians. Once a staunch supporter of big business, the GOP is now targeting companies that speak out on societal issues. Florida governor and possible presidential candidate Ron DeSantis took on Disney; former vice president and possible presidential candidate Mike Pence decried “woke capitalism.” Senator Marco Rubio has already proposed the “No Tax Breaks for Radical Corporate Activism Act,” which bars employers from writing off the costs to pay for abortion-related travel or gender-affirming care for their children.
In light of Friday’s ruling, we talked to experts who have studied corporate action on societal issues. Here are their reactions, edited for space and for clarity:
Most companies won’t make a statement.
Paul A. Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business
Abortion rights are different than some of the other issues you can talk about, like LGBTQ [rights] or Black Lives Matter, in that a good solid 40% of people completely disagree that abortion rights should be legal. In a world like that, if you’re willing to take the heat, go for it. Most companies are not when push comes to shove….If you’re not willing to fight the good fight with those 40%, you’re in for a really rough ride.
Reproductive healthcare is a basic human right. It is not taking a stand.
Alison Taylor, executive director of NYU Stern’s Ethical Systems, writing a book on how business can do the right thing in a turbulent world
I would argue that reproductive healthcare is a basic human right, and also key to many companies being able to attract and retain employees. I would also argue that pluralistic, liberal values make sense for almost all Western corporations, which means respect for everyone’s values and beliefs, even if they are different from yours. That would mean that anti-abortion employees would not be able to impose their views on pro-choice employees. Pro-choice employees are not seeking to impose their views on their colleagues—if you don’t want reproductive healthcare, don’t use it.
It is perfectly fine to provide reproductive healthcare or any other benefit without also ‘taking a stand.’ I would limit the use of corporate speaking up and CEO activism to a tiny number of business-relevant issues. Employees should be allowed, within reason (no egregious racism, etc.) to express their personal views and use their personal time and salary to support whatever causes or politicians they like.
Shift the conversation from politics to how the organization is caring for its employees.
Erika Seth Davies, CEO of Rhia Ventures, a social-impact investment firm focused on reproductive health
Reframe the conversation as an affirmation of support for the workforce. Reposition this as healthcare and just reiterate that over and over again, as a company that ensures access to healthcare for employees.
The most tactical thing companies can do right now is [ask], ‘How do we take care of our workforce?’ That includes making sure that they’re ensuring coverage and abortion access for any reason, making sure they have policies in place if they have operations or employees in states where it’s about to be severely limited, providing travel vouchers or subsidizing travel. They definitely need to make sure employees who would like to relocate are able to do so, and that if they have employees that need abortion care, that they’re supported with adequate paid time off. This is part of a spectrum of reproductive healthcare: Do they have contraception coverage beyond Affordable Care Act requirements? Comprehensively, what does it look like for your company to support women and birthing people?
Because so much of coverage in this country comes from employers, corporate responsibility is now the backstop in terms of access to abortion care. It’s not a comfortable position for companies or women to be in, but this is where we are… The idea that being attacked or people saying mean things [about your company] is worse than not being able to access healthcare is not an effective case.
The world has changed overnight. If you haven’t heard from your employees on this issue before, you will now.
Nancy Northup, president, Center for Reproductive Rights
Whatever someone was doing yesterday, today is a new day. The landscape of what employers are going to hear from their employees in those states, what they will hear from other people who support their brands, has changed. [Customers and employees] are going to expect them to take a stand on one of the most horrific reversals of a right we’ve seen in this country. So I think it’s going to be a new day. Companies have just begun thinking about this issue. I expect a lot of change and development.