Corporate silence on abortion access

These days, corporations make public proclamations after just about every significant news event. After George Floyd was murdered, tech companies, including Microsoft and Apple, made pledges of $3.8 billion to diversify their hiring practices and better support Black workers. Airbnb, Google, and others rushed to announce matching donations to support relief efforts when Russia invaded Ukraine this February. And back in 2013, hundreds of companiesamong them Starbucks and Facebook (now Meta), urged the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

This is part of a series of articles on the business case for abortion access. See the full package here.

So why is it that, even amid the mounting pace of state legislation and recent Supreme Court leakcompanies have had so little to say about abortion?

Starting in March, in anticipation of the Court’s final decision this summer, Fast Company reached out to nearly 200 major companies. We solicited feedback about how these businesses view abortion access, the policies they have in place around abortion care, and how they plan to respond to the likely fall of Roe v. Wade. For this survey, we specifically focused on the largest US companies by revenue, as well as other businesses with workers in states with trigger bans or other substantial abortion restrictions. (See the full list and methodology here.)

Since health insurance is tied to employment, it’s clear that access to reproductive care is a workplace issue. So we were curious: While tech companies are eager to tout their generous IVF and egg-freezing benefits to new recruits, how many offer insurance that covers abortions or birth control? With the fall of Roe26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion. Would companies cover abortion costs or provide paid time off to their employees who must now travel hundreds of miles to access care? Were there further plans—beyond two “Don’t Ban Equality” statements by a coalition of businesses—for some sort of organized action?

Only 15 companies—Adobe, Box, Cisco, DoorDash, GoDaddy, Intuit, Johnson & Johnson, Lyft, Patagonia, Reddit, Snap, Uber, Yelp, Zendesk, and Zillow—were willing to respond to our survey on the record. In fact, six of those respondents only participated in the survey following the leak on May 2.

Of the companies that did respond, several said that employees had expressed concerns about access to abortion care; in one case, as a direct response to the Texas ban, which barred abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Most respondents said they would support employees who needed to travel out of state to access care, or were making plans to do so. Every responding company’s insurance plan covered birth control and abortion.

We understand that supporting reproductive rights is about providing choices,” a Zendesk spokesperson said in response to Fast Company‘s survey. “Providing benefits for family planning that are inclusive of all employees at every life stage is an important part of our values.” (In the survey, Zendesk disclosed its new policy to provide 15 days of paid leave after pregnancy loss, including abortion and miscarriage. “We view [this] as an experience not only isolated to one gender or family type, and [the policy] can be accessed by both the pregnant person, the partner of a pregnant person, or surrogate parents.”)

Perhaps the most striking outcome of the survey was that so few companies were willing to talk on the record about their policies, even though we began outreaching in early March, and businesses have likely long been aware that the Court was considering this case. Overall, 26 companies declined to participate, while a staggering 150 others did not respond to repeated queries over several months. (None of the Big Tech companies—namely Meta, Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix—took the survey; of the 100 largest US companies by revenue, only Cisco and Johnson & Johnson responded.)

Several companies that did not fill out the survey, including Amazon and Tesla, announced after the leak that they will cover travel costs for employees. Some businesses told us they were in the midst of conversations about how to address the SCOTUS decision or hadn’t previously been asked about their policies on abortion.

The widespread corporate silence after the leak could be partially explained by intense public relations pressure. Leaked internal communications from PR giant Zeno advised clients to avoid making statements to the media regarding the draft decision. “Avoid media ‘fishing,’” wrote Katie Cwayna, Zeno’s executive vice president for media strategy, in an email to staff that was leaked to Popular Information. “Often, during controversy, media will make general inquiries to multiple peer organizations, in which the first one to ‘raise its hand’ becomes the lead. In a case like this, being at the center is not advisable; so be judicious if/how general inquiries are managed.” (Zeno’s clients include Coca-Cola, Salesforce, Netflix, and Starbucks—all of which Fast Company contacted for this survey. None replied.)

One of the main arguments in the leaked Zeno email is that abortion access is so divisive, it’s a “no-win” situation for companies because “regardless of what they do, they will alienate at least 15 to 30 percent of their stakeholders.” While the majority of Americans are in favor of abortion access—with a recent poll finding that 72% of respondents were opposed to reversing Roe—it’s impossible to deny that the topic invokes strong feelings.

That’s supported by findings from an exclusive Harris Poll conducted in January for Fast Company, which found that out of 1,092 US adults, some 35% said they are more likely to support a brand if it supports abortion rights, while 28% would be more likely to support a brand that opposed them.

So why should Companies feel a responsibility to take a public stance on such a personal, and often polarizing, matter? In an op-ed for Fast Company Last week, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman explained why he’s been one of the few CEOs to speak out, and why Yelp will cover costs for employees traveling out of state. “Remaining silent on the issue of reproductive rights flies in the face of any public pledges professing a desire to create more diverse and inclusive companies,he wrote. Nearly one in four women will have an abortion in their lifetime, which makes this an issue that touches virtually every company’s workforce.

Companies also have an obligation to their employees because so many workers obtain health insurance through their employer. And where health insurance is involved, things inevitably get complicated because coverage differs by state and company. In states with the most restrictive laws—like, say, Missouri—both private insurance plans and those offered under the Affordable Care Act don’t cover most abortions.

Access to abortion, and all reproductive care, allows people who can get pregnant the ability to Participate fully in the labor forceespecially in a country with no paid leave or universal childcare. The impact of access has been even more significant for black womenwho have seen a marked increase in workforce participation since Roe. Women who were unable to get an abortion were three times more likely to be unemployed after six months when compared to women with abortion access, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. A dearth of safe, accessible reproductive care will continue to disproportionately affect low-wage workers and otherwise marginalized communities, including LGBTQ and disabled employees.

Last week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asserting that curbing access to legal abortions would be a major setback for women. “I believe that eliminating the rights of women to make about when and whether to have children would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back contracts,” she said. Beyond the impact to individuals, state-level abortion restrictions also reportedly cost The US economy about $105 billion each year, due to women leaving the workforce, reducing overall earnings, and increasing turnover.

Making the strict business case to corporations about the necessity of abortion access can feel callous—it can be a matter of life and death for pregnant people, after all. But honoring in on a company’s bottom line is the entire strategy being employed by some shareholder title.

Since last year, San Francisco-based nonprofit Rhia Ventures has led the charge on more than two dozen shareholder resolutions. Some have focused on pressing companies in red states to expand benefits for contraception and abortion coverage in order to help retain workers. Others have drawn attention to the hypocrisy of making political donations that don’t align with a company’s professed values ​​or business interests.

Even companies that have introduced policies supporting employees’ access to abortions—including Amazon and Citigroup—have made sizeable donations to anti-abortion political committees since 2016. (Businesses Coca-Cola and General Motors, which also did not participate in our survey, have made multimillion dollar contributions to anti-abortion lawmakers.)

In Stoppelman’s op-ed, he wrote that he never thought he’d “feel compelled to speak out on this issue” as the CEO of a company based in deeply blue California, where abortion rights are enshrined in state law. But when the pandemic hit, Yelp became a remote-first company, with employees spread across the country. “As it became clear that our distributed workforce does not have equal access to reproductive healthcare, with some employees and their standing families to lose access altogether, I realized we needed to take action,” he wrote.

The SCOTUS leak further proves that this is something all US companies will be forced to contend with. In anticipation of Roe being overturned, states like Connecticut are proactively drafting legislation to shore up abortion rights and protect patients who travel there from red states for abortion care. Companies in other blue states have the power to push lawmakers to adopt similar protections—but only if they recognize that they have a responsibility to their employees. And as employers are faced with a patchwork of state legislation, it also works to their advantage to adopt standardized policies for abortion care and clearly communicate them to workers.

As commentators have pointed out in the days following the leak, the fall of Roe won’t end with the criminalization of abortion, or even contraception (which is already happening in Louisiana). It could affect everything from LGBTQ rights to interracial and same-sex marriage—issues that companies have devoted ample resources to supporting through social media campaigns and internal programming.

If now isn’t a convenient time for companies to speak up, when will be? When Obergevel v. Hodges falls? Or Eisenstadt v. Baird? What about Loving v. Virginia?

Time is of the essence. Shelley Alpern, who oversees shareholder advocacy at Rhia Ventures, urges businesses to act. “The corporate voice can be very important,” says Alpern. “And most Americans. . . are going to be with them if they express this as their obligations to provide employees with the best possible healthcare.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact this ruling will have on workers. Corporations have, sometimes belatedly, found their voice on many other pressing issues. If companies care about their employees—and their bottom line—it’s time for them to find that voice again.

—Additional reporting by Kristin Toussaint and Aimee Rawlins.

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