Demonstrators gather in Washington, D.C. to support reproductive rights in October 2021. (Image: Gayatri Malhotra/Unsplash)
It may be happening quietly behind the scenes rather than emblazoned in public statements, but hundreds of companies are showing their support for reproductive rights more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, ending the right to abortion.
One way in which companies are banding together on this issue is through the Don’t Ban Equality coalition, which has nearly 1,000 signatories ranging from small- and mid-sized firms to large household brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Dove and Levi Strauss & Co. The coalition’s position is that “restricting access to comprehensive reproductive care including abortion threatens the health, independence and economic stability of our workers and customers.”
Many of the companies signed on following the leaked draft of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade in May 2022, with hundreds of signatures flooding in after the eventual decision a month later, said Jen Stark, co-director of the Center for Business and Social Justice, which is part of BSR, a sustainable business network and consultancy.
“The coalition has provided a space where companies can signal to their employees that they understand this is a larger workforce and economic issue and that they are on this journey to understand how to act and respond in the wake of all that is happening,” Stark said.
Reframing reproductive rights as an economic and workforce issue is crucial, Stark told us. “It is as much about economic justice, economic empowerment and economic access as anything else.”
The economic losses from existing abortion restrictions, including labor force impact and earnings, already cost U.S. states an estimated $105 billion annually, according to Don’t Ban Equality. The New York Times Dealbook is among the business publications to cover abortion as a workforce issue that should be on companies’ radars, Stark said. Meanwhile, investors filed at least 31 shareholder proposals addressing access to reproductive healthcare for 2023 proxy ballots.
The issue of reproductive rights also impacts hiring and retention of employees, who want to be assured that this aspect of healthcare will be part of their employee benefits, Stark added. In an April poll from BSR and Morning Consult, workers said they prefer to live in a state where abortion is legal and accessible than where it is illegal and inaccessible by a margin of 2:1.
“This underscores how reproductive rights are a workforce readiness and health and wellbeing issue.” Stark said.
Some companies are vocal about how abortion restrictions impact their ability to maintain and grow a business in a given state, such as pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly and engine maker Cummins in the wake of a near-total abortion ban enacted in Indiana.
Others are working behind the scenes at the state level where bans are being enacted, Stark said. “They can throw needed sand in the gears to slow down the speed with which elected officials would like to enact these bans and restrictions. I think business voices even privately exerting influence on state-level abortion bans is very powerful.”
Yet many more companies are working quietly to address the impacts of abortion restrictions on their employees. “In these fraught times, we see that companies are most comfortable taking action within their own walls by enhancing or updating their benefits to meet the needs of their workers," Stark said. "They want to ensure their benefits are accessible and inclusive to the widest swath of their workforce.”
Many in the U.S. don’t take into account that reproductive rights are human rights, said Paloma Muñoz Quick, associate director of human rights at BSR. This right was enshrined in an international treaty in 1979, called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The U.S. is one of only seven countries — including Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga — that have not yet ratified the Convention.
But the fact that the U.S. is not a signatory should not matter to business, Muñoz Quick’s said. “The expectation for companies is that they respect internationally recognized human rights, irrespective of whether governments do their job to protect human rights, in this case, women's rights. The idea in this context is that companies continue to support and encourage and ensure that women who are pregnant have access to abortion, whether that’s employees or others who are connected to their business.”
By moving to protect reproductive rights, companies can be confident they're aligned with "an approach that has been agreed upon widely by governments all over the world," Muñoz Quick said. "The company’s stance is therefore a transparent, principles-based and thoughtful approach which provides the clearest path forward."
She pointed to this guidance to help business leaders better understand how to respect human rights, including reproductive rights, when domestic law does not uphold international standards.
What is certain is that contention around abortion won’t go away any time soon. The economic backlash is being increasingly felt. The 2023 CNBC rankings for America’s Top State for Business considered reproductive rights as a metric. That may have played a part in Texas, which has some of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws, falling out of the top five for the first time.
As of June, companies are also legally required to adhere to the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act which strengthens pregnant workers’ access to time off or job modifications, including time off to access abortion care.
Given the quickly evolving legal and societal landscape around abortion and reproductive rights, businesses need to consider carefully how they will respond, Stark said.
“At the heart of the discussion, we need to keep coming back to why this is a workforce and economic issue,” she said. “These are issues that are larger than any one company can solve for and requires system change and advocacy. At the end of the day, we need companies to seek to provide benefits to mitigate the harm.”
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.