Updated May 8, 2022 - Economy

Abortion challenges Corporate America's political activism

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The Supreme Court's forthcoming abortion ruling will put Corporate America in a vise, squeezed between employees pressuring companies to speak out and state governments that might punish them if they do.

The big picture: Companies have gotten significantly more outspoken on a host of political and social issues. Abortion was a tougher one to begin with, and a Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade is likely to come just as big corporations are growing more afraid of how much their activism can cost them.

Driving the news: Disney pushed up against the limits of corporate activism when it spoke out against Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, and faced harsh retribution from the state. That will be on executives' minds as they wrestle with the fallout from an abortion ruling.

  • "Disney was a real wake up call for a lot of big companies," said Doug Pinkham, the president of the Public Affairs Council, a Washington-based group that advises companies on political and policy engagement.
  • Companies are in a "quandary" now, he said. On one side you have an increasingly young and educated white-collar workforce urging them to take a stand. On the other hand is the risk of alienating powerful lawmakers in the states where big companies do business.
  • "A lot of times these companies are based in New York City or California or Chicago; they're a lot more liberal than the rest of the country is. They say what they say and then the shitstorm happens," a Republican lobbyist told Axios.

What they're saying: "It's a pivotal moment for corporate America to be on the front lines with women and others," said Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates. Her group is reaching out to companies and urging them to make statements affirming reproductive rights.

  • "I think that this SCOTUS leak will wake up a lot more companies who have been sort of dreading this day of reckoning and putting it off for too long," said Shelley Alpern, a director of corporate engagement at Rhia Ventures, whose been talking to companies for years about reproductive rights.

Where it stands: Starting in 2019, a handful of companies signed on to the Don't Ban Equality statement, protesting a wave of "heartbeat bills" that restricted abortion. Then this year, after Texas essentially banned abortion, more companies spoke up.

  • Citi, Apple, Yelp, and Amazon have said they would pay for employees to travel to access abortion care when they need to.
  • There might be more companies quietly doing this: A large retailer recently agreed to offer an abortion benefit to its workers, according to Alpern, who said she was prohibited from naming them publicly.

Zoom out: Forcing the issue is an extremely tight labor market and a push by many large companies to return to in-person office work.

  • Companies are desperate to attract and retain talent, and any policy measure that makes that more difficult can be a huge problem.

The bottom line: "For most companies I've talked to, their guiding star is their employees," a prominent Democratic lobbyist told Axios.

  • "Businesses have core values, but they also are capitalists, and they're gonna say, in a state that has, let's say, an absolute ban on all abortions, including [in cases of] rape and incest, ... can I get employees to come work there?"

Editor's note: This story originally published on May 4.

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