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Tina Casey headshot

How to Support your Activist Employees When Roe v. Wade Crumbles

By Tina Casey

The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade sparked a powerful swell of street protests across the U.S. last week. For all the noise, though, voices of protest were quickly silenced as the news cycle turned to other matters. Nevertheless, the abortion battle has just begun. Employers who profess to uphold abortion rights need to prepare a plan for supporting their employees as they carry the fight to the next stage this summer and into Election Day 2022.

Words matter: anti-abortion = anti-pregnancy

With a powerful assist from the media, the anti-abortion movement has succeeded in casting itself as exactly that: anti-abortion. The movement has also successfully inserted itself into the public conversation as a “pro-life” or “right-to-life” movement.

However, in reality those words stand only for preserving a pregnancy above all else. In the context of a pregnant person’s life and wellbeing, they have no meaning.

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The public interest in protecting a viable fetus from intentional harm is a matter that few would disagree with. However, designating zygotes, embryos or pre-viable fetuses as untouchable living entities goes far beyond a reasonable level of community concern. It establishes a dehumanizing hierarchy that treats pregnancy as a strictly biological function subject to state and community surveillance at every stage.

Through that lens, the anti-abortion movement is anything but pro-life. It is, in fact, an anti-pregnancy movement that denies all pregnant people their human rights, whether or not they intend to carry their pregnancy to term.

Lessons from ACT UP

Employers who profess to support a person's “right to choose” need to re-frame their thinking. Abortion is not an either-or, binary decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. It goes to the heart of a pregnant person’s rights in a free society.

In the context of human and civil rights in a modern democracy, the leaked Roe v. Wade decision allows policy makers and community members to treat pregnant people as others. They have no civic status. They exist outside of society. They are invisible. Their lives are of no consequence, except to the extent that they are biologically capable of supporting a pregnancy.

Given the stakes, employers should not be shocked, then, to see their employees push back against the leaked draft in ways that are deemed socially unacceptable, such as protesting at the private home of a Supreme Court Justice.

The point of such actions is to become visible again, and the impact can be profound.

The ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s provides a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness grassroots activism that goes beyond the polite choreography of public marches.

ACT UP was a response to the early years of the AIDS outbreak in the U.S., when those suffering from the disease were rendered invisible by policy makers, up to and including the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan.

Members of ACT UP did not stop at marching, writing letters or taking out full page ads in The New York Times. They were determined to become visible in the media. They were determined to have their voices heard. They deliberately — and always without violence — threw themselves into uncomfortable public situations in order to command the news cycle, and they succeeded.

Pregnancy rights and the new fight for visibility

Forming an awareness of the methods of ACT UP is a good start for corporate leaders who seek to support their activist employees. As uncomfortable as public activism can be, it is an appropriate response to a life-or-death situation.

Employers can also help by becoming more familiar with the media depiction of the ACT UP movement. Well-off gay white men were prominent among the original ACT UP founders. The media adopted them as the heroes of the movement despite significant involvement by gay men of color, women and others who did not fit the profile.

As a result, critics of ACT UP worked to portray it as an elitist movement, separate from the concerns of ordinary people.

The new fight for pregnancy rights is already facing the same kind of manipulation. Abortion has long been framed as an issue that pits privileged white women against women of color, and that sort of framing will only intensify in the weeks ahead. 

In addition, there has already been some divisive pushback against language that includes all pregnant people. Employers need to insist that pregnant people who do not fit the conventional description of “woman” are just as visible in the pro-pregnancy movement.

In that regard, employers can leverage their experience with DEI programs to help ensure that pregnancy rights are viewed through the lens of human rights for all.

Employers can also support their activist employees by finally, publicly and unequivocally withdrawing financial support from anti-pregnancy policy makers.

Publicly deploying corporate financial muscle may force business leaders into some uncomfortable positions as Election Day 2022 approaches, but they have no choice.

Now that the draft decision striking down Roe v. Wade has leaked, the battle lines on abortion are fixed, and there is no middle ground.

Image credit: Gayatri Malhotra 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