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Tina Casey headshot

In Midst of Labor Shortage, Abortion Time Bomb Drops on U.S. Businesses

In the wake of last week's Supreme Court ruling, it's clear business leaders must step beyond the offer of travel expenses for out-of-state abortion care.
By Tina Casey

U.S. businesses have been facing a labor shortage, and they can ill afford a new burden that threatens every employee of child-bearing age with significant consequences to their health, financial situation and career prospects. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has rendered its final opinion on the Dobbs abortion rights case. In effect, they decided that pregnancy management is the business of the state, not the pregnant person. The economic impacts of that decision are only just beginning to unfold, but already it is clear that business leaders need to step beyond the offer of travel expenses for out-of-state abortion care.

Free travel was never enough

When Texas imposed a draconian system of community-based policing on pregnant people last year, several leading corporations sought a workaround by offering free airfare and other expenses for employees to travel from Texas to other states, where people are still free to manage their own pregnancies.

Putting up cash for an employee in pursuit of a safe, legal abortion is a strong public statement. It is a definitive assertion that the right to terminate a pregnancy has significant economic value to a company, and that is a good start.

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The benefits of free travel, though, are limited. They are generally reserved for full-time employees. Even if free travel becomes widespread corporate practice, millions of part-time employees, contractors, gig workers, the self-employed and those not working at all are left to fend for themselves.

The exclusion of large swaths of the population is not the only problem with the “all expenses paid” solution. It depends entirely on the will of voters and legislators in pregnancy-rights states. That could turn on a dime with every election.

The travel solution also ignores the fact that Republican legislators in Congress have already turned their attention to a national ban on abortions. The right to contraceptives is also up for grabs.

Instead of focusing exclusively on cash for interstate travel, U.S. business leaders need to turn their attention to concrete action steps that protect the public at large, not just their own employees.

Money talks

It’s been said before and it’s worth repeating: Business leaders who profess to take DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) principles seriously need to cut the money pipeline to legislators, policy makers, political organizations and activist groups that fail to recognize the basic human rights of pregnant people.

Corporate dollars have already done enough damage. They helped set the stage for the 2020 election of former President Donald Trump, who installed three new Supreme Court Justices vetted and approved by the far-right anti-abortion organization The Federalist Society, effectively cementing the 6-3 majority that rendered the Dobbs decision.

Corporate dollars will not undo the damage overnight, but corporate support for pregnancy-rights legislators at the national and state level could make all the difference in preserving abortion access.

Stop gaslighting employees on pregnancy rights

A generation of anti-abortion sloganeering has cleaved the issue of abortion rights into two supposedly equal and opposite sides: for babies, and against babies. 

That is a gaslighting trap, and employers need to call it out instead of trying to accommodate employees with “deeply held beliefs” or “passionate feelings” about the beginning of human life.

Kathryn Rubino of the popular legal blog Above the Law recently exposed the hollowness of the “both sides” argument when she criticized Chairman Robert S. Insolia and Managing Partner Mark T. Bettencourt of the top law firm Goodwin Procter for an employee memo regarding a leaked draft of the Dobbs decision. The memo was an appeal for mutual respect and courtesy.

“This decision…will be deeply disappointing to some members of of [sic] community and welcome news to others,” the memo read in part.

“No matter how strongly we may feel at the moment, we should remind ourselves that we strive to build a firm where everyone feels they belong, regardless of political, religious and other beliefs and practices,” they continued.

As may be expected, Rubino reported an outburst of employee criticism over the memo. There is no equal argument for “both sides” when one side seeks to reduce the other to a state- and community-policed vessel for procreation by any passing stranger.

“Seriously, Rob and Mark, this isn’t some academic exercise where reasonable minds can agree to disagree. It’s the denial of a fundamental right and destroying access to (and potentially criminalizing) a life-saving medical procedure. But sure guys, let’s be way more concerned about whether conversation at the water cooler remains cordial,” Rubino wrote.

Start educating employees on pregnancy rights

If that language of the Goodwin Procter memo sounds familiar, it echoes the “different thinking” argument promoted by Mark Zuckerberg during former President Trump’s 2020 campaign. SpaceX CEO Gywnne Shotwell also recently echoed the idea that intolerance deserves the same respect as tolerance.

In contrast, Dick’s Sporting Goods President and CEO Lauren Hobart made it clear that a line must be drawn between feelings and rights where pregnancy management is involved – and that one is more important than the other.

“We recognize people feel passionately about this topic…However, we also recognize that decisions involving health and families are deeply personal and made with thoughtful consideration,” she wrote in a brief public memo on LinkedIn.

Hobart does not permit a narrow focus on employee “feelings” to vaporize legitimate issues of human rights and civic welfare.  She frames it as a matter of ensuring that all employees have equal access to the benefits provided by Dick’s, regardless of their state of residence.

Corporations don’t need to tell anyone how to feel. But they do need to separate one’s feelings from another’s rights. That requires a new feature in employee education, and many companies already have the tools at hand through their years of experience in diversity training as well as health and wellness programs.

Support abortion rights for all, wherever they remain

Companies that tout their out-of-state travel benefits also need to recognize their responsibility to prevent the erosion of pregnancy rights in other states. One such effort is expressed in the “Multi-State Commitment to Reproductive Freedom” pact announced by the governors of California, Oregon and Washington. 

Media attention has focused on assistance for out-of-state travelers seeking abortions, but the pact also covers a cascade of legal crises provoked by the Dobbs decision, including the emerging issue of data collection on people of menstrual age.

Support the lawyers

Companies that support abortion rights can also engage with the legal community. Earlier this month, for example, more than 20 leading U.S. law firms combined resources to form the Legal Alliance for Reproductive Rights, to provide free legal services to those affected by state-based restrictions.
That effort is not limited to the 26 states that already restrict abortion access or plan to do so. Legal stakeholders in pregnancy-rights states are preparing for a surge in out-of-state travelers who risk legal repercussions back home.

As part of the LARR effort, last week the Bar Association of San Francisco launched a first-of-its-kind collaboration with City Attorney David Chiu. 

In addition to providing free legal services to those in need, the new collaboration plans to coordinate with other LARR members and stakeholders and will provide guidance for businesses seeking to protect their employees.

Know the consequences of inaction

Business leaders have been quiet on the topic of pregnancy rights over the years. That’s not difficult to understand, given the emotional fever raised by anti-abortion activists. However, it was and is a mistake.

Silence provided an opportunity for anti-abortion activists to raise their feelings about abortion to a sacrosanct level, much in the way that pro-gun activists have elevated the Second Amendment to an untouchable, immutable right

Business leaders need to break the abortion taboo and publicly defend the right to self-determination for every person with pregnancy in their present or future. It’s a matter of economic survival as well as human rights.

The American Sustainable Business Network outlined the business case for abortion rights last week, stating that “The right to unrestricted healthcare options, including reproductive healthcare is fundamental to a healthy, vibrant, and inclusive economy.”

It’s not a matter of who feels what. It’s a matter of civil rights, human rights, and ultimately who gets to participate in American democracy — and in the American workforce — on a free and equal basis.

Image credit: Sarah Penney via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey