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regular-article-logo Friday, 01 March 2024

A year after Roe v. Wade, how have US firms reacted?

Since the June 24 verdict last year, about a dozen Republican-led states have banned abortion almost entirely, leaving millions of women without access to nearby clinics

Reuters Published 12.06.23, 09:28 AM
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A year after the US Supreme Court removed women's nationwide right to end their pregnancies, few US firms are willing to publicly support abortion, and many prefer to stay silent.

The overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that established the constitutional right to access abortion gave states a free rein to ban terminations.

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Since the June 24 verdict last year, about a dozen Republican-led states have banned abortion almost entirely, leaving millions of women without access to nearby clinics.

Immediately after the court ruling, dozens of top US companies, including JPMorgan Chase & Co, Amazon.com, Tesla, Airbnb, Walt Disney Co and Apple announced they would cover travel expenses for staff needing an abortion.

But in the past year, such big announcements have "dried up," said Shelley Alpern, head of corporate engagement at Rhia Ventures, a US social enterprise.

There are still relatively few companies willing "to stick their neck out," on abortion rights, she said.

"I think there is a lot of quiet advancement going on inside of corporations, and they don't feel the internal or external pressure to make announcements as they did after the decision," said Alpern.

While corporate America has increasingly taken a stand in support of racial justice, gender equality, and LGBTQ+ rights, abortion remains an issue many prefer to sidestep.

The influential Business Roundtable, an association of more than 200 CEOs of leading US companies, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it "does not have a position on this issue."

A 2022 survey of some 300 US companies by non-partisan US think tank The Conference Board found a third were not planning to publicly respond to the court ruling.

Reproductive rights, along with gun control and immigration, are issues that companies would prefer were left to the government, said Paul Washington, who heads the Environmental, Social and Governance Center at The Conference Board.

Business leaders need more information on the impact abortion restrictions have on their companies, he said.

"As companies are addressing social issues, I think they are going to be looking for more data in deciding, whether, when, how to weigh in," said Washington, adding that companies were more likely to publicly comment on a social issue if they believed it directly affected their business and customers.

Workplace issue

A study by the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research in 2021 estimated state-level abortion restrictions would cost the US economy $105 billion a year.

It found restrictions would hit women's participation in the labor market and could keep more than 500,000 women aged 15 to 44 out of the workforce each year. It would also increase staff turnover and time off from work among women, the institute said.

Economists and academics have filed "friend of the court" briefs to the Supreme Court arguing abortion access negatively impacts the lives and careers of women, particularly young and Black women.

Companies that are a leading source of jobs have clout they could use to advocate for abortion rights but few, if any, are willing to use it - at least in public, campaigners say.

No major US company has left or threatened to leave a state because of laws blocking or restricting abortion.

However, several big US companies like Indiana-based engine manufacturer Cummins, and drugmaker Eli Lilly, one of Indiana's biggest employers, have said state abortion bans could influence decisions about where to expand.

Republican-controlled Indiana was the first state to prohibit abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned, but a judge has temporarily halted the ban.

While some US companies have taken a stance, many worry that publicly supporting abortion rights could damage their reputation and brand, and potentially lose customers.

Meanwhile, companies supporting restrictions on abortion also prefer not to make their views public, but some have helped fund politicians who have campaigned for the bans.

A 2022 report by the Sustainable Investments Institute found 15 companies gave more than $1 million to anti-abortion state office candidates during the 2020 to 2022 election cycle.

A poll last year by the Pew Research Center, however, showed 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

"What companies are underappreciating is that most Americans are either supportive of abortion or have a moderate position," Alpern said.

'Bad for business'

Nearly one-in-four women in the United States have an abortion in their lifetime.

Of nearly 20 big US companies contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation who had made previous statements in favor of reproductive rights, only three replied on the record.

"We are using our public position to support policies and platforms that support reproductive health services," said Chris Miller, head of global activism strategy at ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's, one of the companies to respond.

Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer at business review website Yelp, called restrictions on reproductive healthcare "disheartening" and said the company was committed to supporting access to such care.

France-based Danone, the world's largest yoghurt-maker, said it provides its US employees with the access to healthcare they need.

"Women have the right to make personal decisions regarding their health and wellness, and our role is to support them," a Danone spokesperson said.

Big biopharmaceutical companies have also waded in on the issue. In April, executives from more than 300 biotech and pharmaceutical companies called for the reversal of a judge's decision to suspend sales of abortion pill mifepristone.

The Supreme Court has since blocked new restrictions set by lower courts, meaning mifepristone, for now, remains available.

Don't Ban Equality is a coalition of more than 800 businesses in 40 USstates that say policies restricting reproductive healthcare are "bad for business".

It said in a statement that criticism by pharmaceutical companies was "particularly impactful given their concerns about a new precedent being set that makes regulatory approval granted by the FDA somehow at the mercy of a judge's political ideology."

Polls show companies in states with anti-abortion laws could find it harder to recruit staff, particularly women.

Two-thirds of college graduates said they would be discouraged from taking a job in such states, according to a 2021 poll by PerryUndem, a non-partisan US research firm.

"Let's be clear: abortion is a workplace and economic issue," said Don't Ban Equality.

Rising shareholder activism

Pressure on major US companies to weigh in on abortion is also rising as the polarizing issue hits the boardroom agenda.

Companies face demands from shareholders seeking information about their abortion policy and the long-term impact of abortion restrictions on their bottom line.

In May, shareholders including at Coca-Cola, American Express, and Eli Lilly voted on non-binding shareholder proposals related to abortion issues.

At Coca-Cola's annual shareholder meeting, 87% opposed a proposal by US shareholder advocacy group As You Sow to report on how anti-abortion laws affect the company's performance.

Companies should explain to investors how state anti-abortion laws affect their ability to attract and retain talent, said Andrew Behar, head of As You Sow.

"We think this is actually a cost for the company," he said.

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