Supreme Court assesses future role and final say on abortion

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Certain political and cultural events have sparked a cascade of emails from brands – sneaker, makeup and food companies telling customers they’re with them in a stressful time, or reminding them to vote. But after a draft opinion obtained by Politico revealed the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, the overwhelming reaction from business leaders was silence.

“It’s an issue that many companies have avoided,” said Miriam Warren, Yelp’s diversity manager.

Ms Warren, whose company has been among the most outspoken in favor of abortion rights, hopes the silence will be broken. She considers the expression of an opinion, in one way or another, as a necessity to recruit and retain talent.

“The days of companies not getting involved in political issues or speaking out about things perceived as private or personal are over,” she said.

Anti-abortion activists, however, said the companies’ silence made business sense.

“It’s generally a mistake for business leaders to get into political issues, especially divisive political issues where they could alienate half their clientele,” said Anne Cori, chair of the anti-political group. -Abortion Eagle Forum.

And for now, that logic seems to hold. There were scattered responses expressing dismay at the draft notice – largely from women-focused brands and the women who run them, many of whom have already spoken out on the subject.

OKCupid, the dating service, wrote on Twitter Tuesday that the overturning of Roe v. Wade would be “unacceptable”, adding, “Tag a brand you want to see take action.” Kate Ryder, chief executive of Maven, a women’s and family health group, wrote that her team had developed plans to help companies protect access to abortion for their workers if Roe was overthrown. Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote on her personal Facebook page that it was “a scary day for women.”

Beyond that, among most Fortune 500 companies, substantive statements were rare, either in favor or in opposition to the court’s draft opinion.

Credit…Yana Paskova/Reuters

In recent years, business leaders have immersed themselves in political discourse, making public statements in support of Black Lives Matter or voting rights or marriage equality. Some companies that wouldn’t have dreamed of getting involved in politics a decade ago felt that the Trump era demanded at least a press release.

Even more recently, business leaders have been reminded how difficult engagement can be. Disney, for example, faced an internal backlash when its executives refused to take a strong stance against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics often call the “Don’t Say Gay” law. . But when the chief executive took a public stance, the company was crucified on social media and the state revoked its special tax benefits.

Now, with the expected demise of the nation’s landmark abortion law, business leaders face the most burning issues. In a 2021 Pew Research poll, 59% of Americans said they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 39% said it should be illegal in all or most cases. cases. People on all sides of the issue are very committed to it, with nearly a quarter of Americans saying they will only vote for candidates who share their views on abortion, according to Gallup.

This all adds up to plenty of reasons why a company would want to avoid making any statement about abortion — and especially since customers and workers might come to see it as needed. Where a company stands at the end of Roe could impact how it hires in an increasingly competitive job market and how customers perceive its brand.

“Abortion is a healthcare issue, healthcare is an employer issue, so abortion is an employer issue,” said Carolyn Witte, chief executive of Tia, a health care company. women’s health. On Tuesday, Tia announced that it would provide medical abortions through its telemedicine platform in states where it operated and where it was legal.

For some big companies known to weigh in on political and social issues, this week has been unusually quiet. Walmart, Disney, Meta, PwC, Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, ThirdLove, Patagonia, Kroger and Business Roundtable were among the companies and organizations that declined to comment or take a position, or did not respond to requests for comment on their intent to make public statements regarding their position on abortion. Hobby Lobby, which in 2014 filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court challenging whether employer-provided health care should include contraception, made no public statement and did not respond to a request for comment.

Other companies have stepped in. United Talent Agency said it would reimburse travel expenses for employees affected by the abortion bans. Airbnb said it would ensure its employees “have the resources they need to make choices about their reproductive rights.” Levi Strauss & Company, which said its benefits plan will reimburse employees who must travel out of state for health services such as abortions, said abortion is a business issue.

“Efforts to restrict or further criminalize this access would have far-reaching consequences for the American workforce,” the company said in an email to The New York Times. “It would jeopardize the progress made by women in the workplace over the past 50 years.”

The stakes for any statement – corporate or personal as a business leader – are clearly high.

In September, John Gibson, chief executive of Tripwire Interactive, a Georgia-based game company, wrote on Twitter that he was “proud” of the Supreme Court for “upholding Texas law banning abortion for babies whose hearts beat”. His comments angered his colleagues, and within days he was replaced.

“The comments given by John Gibson are his own opinion and do not reflect those of Tripwire Interactive as a company,” reads a statement from Tripwire Interactive management. “Our leadership team at Tripwire is deeply sorry and united in our commitment to act quickly and foster a more positive environment.”

Tripwire did not respond to a request for comment. In a tweet after leaving the company, Mr Gibson said: ‘To the many fans, friends and peers across the spectrum of beliefs who have reached out to offer care and support, thank you.’

Credit…Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Consumer-facing companies also need to think about what customers will say: According to a 2018 study by Edelman, two-thirds of consumers say they base their buying decisions on a brand’s social position.

“If I’m Walmart and I’m located in the South, I think I would have greater concerns about political repercussions and consumer repercussions – especially if I act alone,” said Amanda Shanor, assistant professor at the Wharton School. from the University of Pennsylvania, where she focuses on constitutional law. Arkansas, home to Walmart’s headquarters, is among 13 states set to ban abortion immediately or very quickly if Roe v. Wade is knocked down.

Customer alienation is a danger. But companies must also think about the labor market.

Women make up about half of the workforce, and those who cannot have an abortion are less likely to be employed full-time six months after refusing care, according to a 2018 article. the working population has increased considerably since the Roe ruling in 1973; between 1962 and 2000, it rose from 37 to 61%.

And in the regions of the country where access to abortion is the most restricted, executives are sometimes faced with recruitment difficulties. Vivek Bhaskaran, chief executive of QuestionPro, a technology services company that moved its headquarters from San Francisco to Austin just before the pandemic, said restrictive Texas laws were hampering its ability to recruit talent.

“I’ve done tons of interviews, and in almost all of those conversations, we end up talking about abortion law in one way, one form or another,” he said. declared. “A lady said, ‘My personal values ​​aren’t really tied to Texas – are you going to force me to move to Texas? “”

Solugen, a Houston-based chemical company, has decided to open a second office in Boston in the coming months to accommodate recruits uneasy about moving to Texas, said Gaurab Chakrabarti, chief executive and co-founder of the society.

The handful of companies that took action after Texas banned six-week abortions last year could be a harbinger of what the wider business community could do in the weeks and the coming months. Citigroup revealed in a securities filing that it offered travel benefits to employees seeking abortions outside their home countries. Yelp, which has just over 200 employees in Texas, said it would cover the expenses of workers who had to travel out of state to get abortions. Match Group chief Shar Dubey has announced a fund for employees seeking abortions.

Credit…Guérin Blask for the New York Times

Amalgamated Bank was a corporation that had worked with several abortion rights organizations in the past, but had tried to avoid addressing abortion trends. landscape as a matter of employees – until this week. A bank vice president, Maura Keaney, followed as the Supreme Court heard arguments on the Mississippi law directly challenging Roe in December and felt “hopeless,” she said.

“Over the days and weeks, it became clear to me talking to allies in space, our customers and our employees that this was simply not a functional prospect for me personally or for the bank” , says Ms. Keaney.

She was working to ensure that the bank – founded in 1923 by a union of mostly immigrant women workers – could pay for travel expenses for out-of-state abortions for its employees and set up a fund to help health organizations. base.

An announcement was scheduled for later this month. Instead, the bank made it public on Tuesday.

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