Nov 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – U.S. firms look set to face increasing scrutiny over their stance on abortion rights and whether employee healthcare plans are in step with social responsibility statements as abortion curbs are challenged in court, researchers and executives say.
A near-total ban on abortion in Texas and new restrictions on the procedure in other Republican-led states have prompted dozens of firms to wade into the highly charged debate – many speaking out publicly for the first time.
As economists warn about the long-term impact of restricting abortion on employees and the bottom line, even more firms are likely to take a stand, said Shelley Alpern, head of corporate engagement at Rhia Ventures, a U.S.-based social enterprise.
“Once it really sinks in that abortion restrictions hurt their workforce and talent pool, and that silence doesn’t put them in a good light, they will speak up more, if not publicly then in private conversations with lawmakers,” Alpern said.
More than 80 companies with a combined revenue of more than $20 billion signed a statement in September denouncing Texas’s abortion law, which bans the procedure from about six weeks of pregnancy, including in rape and incest cases.
The statement, organized by a coalition called “Don’t Ban Equality in Texas,” said “policies that restrict reproductive health care go against our values and are bad for business.”
“The future of gender equality hangs in the balance, putting our families, communities, businesses and the economy at risk,” said the statement, signed by companies including Netflix, outdoor apparel brand Patagonia and ride hailing company Lyft.
Such initiatives highlight a gradual shift in corporate thinking on abortion in public, which polls show most Americans believe should be legal in all or most cases.
Once seen only as a religious, women’s rights and health issue, abortion is becoming a badge for a company’s commitment to social responsibility, gender equality and workplace diversity.
“Abortion rights will become another issue where companies will have to choose a side,” said Sarah Jackel, chief operating officer at Civitech, a tech and political data start-up that was among the signatories of the declaration against the Texas law.
“The key factor to creating a successful business is hiring, training, resourcing, and retaining talented people. Texas’ abortion law endangers that process,” she said in emailed comments, noting businesses are struggling to fill vacancies as the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The last thing businesses need are state laws that infringe on women’s rights and put employees in the position of having to quit their jobs or carry out an unwanted pregnancy,” said Jackel.
Pressure for companies to take a stand on abortion is growing as the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, prepares to hear challenges to abortion restrictions, including one scheduled for Dec. 1 over a Mississippi law.
Christopher Miller, head of global activism strategy at Ben & Jerry’s, said the ice cream company believes “it’s important to speak up and speak out on these issues.”
“We see reproductive healthcare as a workplace issue,” Miller told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“If you’re operating in a state like Texas, it puts you at a competitive disadvantage. It makes it difficult to deliver on pay equity and recruiting and retaining talented leaders when there is a blatant attack against women,” he said.
Two-thirds of college-educated adults said the Texas ban would discourage them from working in the state, according to an online poll conducted in August by PerryUndem, a nonpartisan Washington-based research firm.
Abortion rights also influence decisions made by men, the survey found, with about half of male respondents saying they would not apply for a job in a state that passed a Texas-style abortion law.
Some companies that have quietly been backing initiatives supporting women’s access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, are now being more open and vocal about it.
“We’ve supported movements, organizations and initiatives focused on reproductive health – but we were not always explicit that this work included abortion,” said Carleen Pickard, ethical campaigns specialist at Lush, a cosmetics retailer.
“No longer. Access to abortion is essential,” she added.
Rachel J. Robasciotti, founder and chief executive of Adasina Social Capital, an investment and financial activism firm, said “abortion is an issue that businesses in the U.S. can no longer afford to ignore.”
Publicly rejecting the Texas law is an obvious part of broader company efforts to foster gender equality, said Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer at crowdsourced business review website Yelp.
“Gender equality cannot be truly achieved if women’s healthcare rights are restricted,” she said.
A June study by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) estimated state-level abortion restrictions cost the U.S. economy $105 billion a year.
It found the curbs hit women’s participation in the workforce and their earnings, increasing turnover and time off from work among women.
“Those lost earnings also translate to economic impacts for states themselves,” said Nicole Mason, head of IWPR.
Research by the IWPR’s Center on the Economics of Reproductive Health included a range of abortion restrictions, including near-total bans like Texas’s, mandated counseling and waiting periods, and required parental consent for children.
Without such abortion limitations, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) would be nearly half a percentage point greater and an additional 505,000 women aged 15 to 44 would enter the workforce earning about $3 billion annually, the research found.
But though women make up roughly half of the U.S. workforce, many firms do not know what kind of reproductive healthcare – including abortion – they offer as part of insurance plans, found a 2020 report by Rhia Ventures.
Nearly one in four women in the United States will have an abortion in their lifetime.
“A lot of companies just don’t check (because it is) not thought of as something that is valued and that people would value,” said Camila Novo-Viano, one of the authors of the report, which was based on interviews with human resource and benefits managers at 39 companies.
“It was just not something that was on the top of their minds, and it comes from this belief that abortion is not a key part of reproductive health and is not something many women need,” said Novo-Viano, a senior consultant with the FSG consulting firm.
With abortion rights being put to the test over the coming months, more companies are likely to weigh in.
“We are organized and pushing back because we realize the impact that S.B. 8 (Texas law) and any copycat bills will have on safety for all employees, as well as on doing business in general,” said Pickard at Lush. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)