A rally for abortion rights in Washington, D.C., fall 2021
Leading U.S. corporations that profess to support human and civil rights were put on the spot last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its final decision in the Dobbs abortion case. Some business leaders tried to control the damage by taking steps to ensure their employees of equal access to company-wide health benefits. However, a storm is coming, as employee and shareholder activists gear up for the fight of the century.
Salesforce and several other companies set the template for benefits-based action last fall. The company guaranteed travel support for its Texas employees seeking abortions out-of-state after the state's legislature passed new restrictions on abortion access.
Since then, the trickle has turned into a flood. A leaked draft of the Dobbs opinion set the wheels in motion several weeks ago, and some corporations were already prepared to take a stand.
According to a list maintained by Reuters, so far two dozen leading corporations have added out-of-state travel benefits for abortions or have stated that their existing benefits already cover out-of-state medical care.
So far, the list mainly includes financial and tech firms such as JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Meta, Uber, Yelp, DoorDash and Microsoft, among others. However, entertainment companies (Netflix, Disney) also make an appearance, along with retailers (Starbucks, Kroger) and consumer brands (Levi Strauss, Gucci).
Corporations may appear to be on firm ground by offering travel benefits. They position it as a matter of fairness, providing all employees with the same access to their health benefits regardless of where they live.
However, if corporations are placing the bar at consistency, the earth is already moving under their feet. The fairness argument is its own undoing. It gives oxygen to Republican office holders, and their allies on the Supreme Court, who are already working towards a national abortion ban.
If these corporations are looking for inter-state consistency, they could very well get it, just not in the way they anticipated.
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In addition, now that anti-abortion activists have the Supreme Court in their pocket, they can turn their full attention to changing state policies that still uphold the right to manage one’s own pregnancy.
As more states impose more restrictions, out-of-state travelers will strain medical resources in the remaining abortion-rights states. Concerns have already been raised over longer wait times for abortion services, resulting in increased risk to the pregnant person. The impacts could ripple out to impact services for residents in abortion-rights states as well as those traveling for an abortion.
After a generation of corporate happy talk on diversity, equality and inclusion, the Dobbs decision has suddenly slammed the sledgehammer of reality on their heads. Many of them deserve it, because many of them they have provided the financial backing that leveraged Republican candidates into statehouses and the halls of Congress, ultimately providing former President Donald Trump with the opportunity to cement a 6-3 far-right, anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court.
The organization Equity Forward has been tracking political contributions by corporations in support of anti-abortion lawmakers. They identified some of the best-known names in DEI — AT&T, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Delta Airlines, General Motors, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Lyft, Mastercard, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Uber and Walmart — as significant contributors to the anti-abortion movement.
The blowback from two-faced political donations is a relatively new risk on the corporate risk manager’s to-do list. As described last February by Dorothy S. Lund and Leo E. Strine in the Harvard Business Review, much of the problem is due to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the floodgates on corporate political donations.
In particular, Lund and Strine cite Google for signing on to a corporate voting rights letter last April, while at the same time the company “had quietly funded a ‘policy working group’ on ‘election integrity’ with the Republican State Leadership Committee.”
That is just one case among many. Lund and Strine also took note of a 2020 report containing “abundant examples” of companies that “donate to help elect candidates they hope will do their industry’s bidding or support a specific cause, even as they publicly advocate for the opposite stance.”
Lund and Stine also suggest that the bottom-line benefits of political donations are not as straightforward as they may seem.
“Emerging evidence suggests that [political donations] can destroy value by suppressing innovation and distracting managers from more-pressing tasks,” they write. “Perhaps most important, political donations greatly heighten corporate risk.”
“In an era when customers, employees, and investors are increasingly scrutinizing companies’ records on employee, environmental, social, and governance issues ... the threat of blowback from political contributions has become too great for executives to ignore,” they add.
That was a prescient warning, but it has come far too late now that Dobbs has set the wheels in motion. Corporations that support Republican candidates and other anti-abortion lawmakers are now faced with the potential for an unprecedented backlash as millions of consumers wake up to the fact that all of their pregnancies, intended or not — and ultimately, all of their menstrual cycles — are now under the thumb of state machinery and self-appointed community police, thanks to a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court consisting solely of Republican-nominated justices.
So, what’s in store for corporate crisis communicators? For starters, the consumer activist movement sparked by grassroots organizations like Sleeping Giants and Grab Your Wallet has already taken new form in at least one consumer-friendly app aimed at directing grassroots firepower against corporations that fund anti-abortion lawmakers, organized by Equity Forward under the name “Defund the Bans.”
Employee activist organizations have also become powerful forces on issues ranging from immigrant rights to climate change. Corporations can expect blowback from that quarter as well.
In addition, shareholder activism is also on the rise. An effective movement has already coalesced around climate change, and that is just the beginning. Last year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) changed its policy to provide more opportunity for shareholders to force a vote on social issues. It’s a safe bet that abortion will be one of them.
“Last year, the SEC shifted its policy on ‘no-action’ letters — essentially green lights for companies to cast aside shareholder proposals without fear of an enforcement action down the line—saying it would start factoring in broader social policy considerations when evaluating corporate requests to reject proxy proposals,” Bloomberg Law explained last May, which took note of at least three companies facing votes on proxy proposals related to abortion access: Walmart, Lowe’s and TJX.
Corporations can ignore the coming wave of activism at their own peril, or they can work with consumers, clients, employees, and shareholders to ensure that the right to manage one’s own pregnancy is cemented into the law of the land.
Image credit: Gayatri Malhotra 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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.