By supporting vaccine mandates and abortion rights, some employers appear to have put themselves squarely in the middle of a moral quandary. However, that is not the case. When viewed through the lens of the workplace environment and public health, there is no conflict between requiring one employee to get vaccinated against a transmissible virus, while supporting another’s decision to end a pregnancy.
Abortion as a public health issue
In the 50 years since the Supreme Court rendered its decision on the Roe v. Wade abortion rights case, state policy makers have steadily chipped away at the right of individuals to terminate a pregnancy. Meanwhile, the matter of public health has gone all but untouched.
The argument in support of abortion on demand rests partly on the notion that public policy should resolve an individual’s right to terminate their pregnancy only after a fetus crosses the threshold between dependence on the womb and existence on the Earth. As a corollary, abortion on demand supports the notion that the health and safety of the womb’s owner take precedence over that of the womb’s occupant.
The subtext of all this is the constitutional right of the individual to make medical choices in private consultation with persons of their own choosing, and that is perhaps why supporters of abortion rights have lost their case.
The focus on constitutional rights is a necessary one, but it is also a distraction. Abortion is not simply an individual right. It is a fundamental matter of public health.
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She notes that the constitutional right to privacy was recognized by both Republican and Democratic appointees to the Supreme Court during the Roe v. Wade arguments.
Justice Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee, wrote the opinion. However, it was another Nixon appointee, Lewis Powell, who made a pivotal suggestion that evokes public health.
The original proposal was to make 12 weeks the cutoff for abortion on demand. Along with others in the majority, Powell convinced Blackmun that the cutoff should be almost doubled.
“Blackmun himself explained as he prepared to amend his views that viability has logical and biological justifications,” Biskupic recounts, citing from his writings:
“'There is a practical aspect, too,” he continued in a memo to fellow justices, “for I am sure that there are many pregnant women, particularly younger girls, who may refuse to face the fact of pregnancy and who, for one reason or another, do not get around to medical consultation until the end of the first trimester is upon them or, indeed, has passed.”
Public health and the ‘practical aspect’
Although the Roe v. Wade decision has been heralded as a validation of personal liberty under the constitution, Blackmun’s decision appears to reach for the opposite conclusion. It is freighted with concepts of logic, biological fact, practicality and group impacts that belong squarely in the field of public health.
In the context of Blackmun’s memo, ignorance of one’s own condition, lack of access to professional help, fear of pregnancy and any fear of reprisal are all matters of public health, not individual liberty.
Public health is the common ground on which employers can support vaccine mandates for their employees, customers and clients, while also supporting a person’s decision to terminate a pregnancy.
As a matter of bottom-line practicality, employers can and should consider opposition to abortion as a threat to the workplace environment, with potentially catastrophic impacts on employee health and well-being, similar to the threat posed by allowing unvaccinated persons to come and go in the workplace during a lethal pandemic.
In the context of the ongoing worker shortage, corporate leaders have an additional incentive to help ensure that pregnant employees and job seekers have an unfettered right to render a decision about their pregnancy.
How to change hearts and minds: don’t bother
As amply illustrated by the hysterical reaction to vaccine mandates, there is no sense arguing with someone who opposes abortion on demand. Generations of fetal worship have poisoned the well, infecting powerful policy makers as well as the general public with the idea that matters of personal morality, however ill-founded, should always hold sway over public health considerations.
At this point, activism is the only solution, and this is an area in which corporate leaders can make a real difference.
Throughout the 20th century, women and their allies organized in massive numbers to fight for equal rights and a place at the policy making table, making themselves known as voters while corporate America sat by and watched.
With the Supreme Court all but certain to vaporize the last remnants of Roe v. Wade, perhaps now is the time for corporate leaders to stop cheering from the sidelines, and start focusing their financial muscle on solutions that support both public welfare and individual rights.
If corporate leaders are too afraid to tackle the issues head on, then fine. They can certainly fight for equal access to the ballot and let the weight of public opinion be reflected in the will of the electorate, not the privileged few.
After all, this is still a democracy, right?
Image credit: Ian Hutchinson via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.