May 18, 2022 - Economy & Business

U.S. warns businesses to prepare for civil unrest after abortion ruling

Illustration of a briefcase with the lock in the shape of the female symbol
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Law enforcement organizations are warning corporate leaders about the risk of civil unrest, and perhaps violence, if the Supreme Court ultimately overturns Roe v. Wade.

Why it matters: As the American political sphere becomes more fractured, it's often the business sector that's forced to figure out how to maneuver around policy shocks or social unrest — and the looming Supreme Court decision on abortion is expected to have massive ripple effects everywhere, including at work.

State of play: A memo from the Department of Homeland Security, obtained by Axios, warns about violent threats from extremists — on both sides of the issue — who might target protestors, government officials, companies that make or sell medication to end pregnancies and "organizations that fund and facilitate travel for those seeking abortions."

  • Law enforcement is reaching out to corporate leadership, flagging the potential for civil unrest, said Jonathan Wackrow, a risk management consultant at Teneo, who works with Fortune 100 firms.
  • It's really an "unprecedented move," added Wackrow, a former special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, meant to help give corporate security teams time to prepare.
  • The Court decision could serve as a spark for some workplaces — already tense and stress-filled, as some workers are reluctantly back at the office, he said. "The number of workplace violence discussions I am leading right now with clients is staggering."

Context: Several companies in recent months, including Citi, Starbucks and Match.com, put policies in place that would pay for employees who need to travel to access reproductive care.

  • None would comment to Axios about the potential risk that posed.

Zoom out: For now, companies are mostly trying to figure out internal messaging on the topic, sources told Axios.

  • They're sending out supportive memos to workers saying things along the lines of "we understand this can reverberate emotionally and psychologically."
  • Companies that feel secure that their customers and employees won't object have taken a stand in favor of reproductive rights. But many more are taking a wait and see approach.

What they're saying: Danielle Wiley, the CEO of marketing agency Sway Group, sent an email to her staff that was more direct: “The right to an abortion, and the right to choose for myself what is best for my own body are rights that I grew up with, and they are rights that I believe all people with uteruses should have," she wrote, adding that this is a company value.

  • With only 34 employees, including just one man, she wasn't too worried about taking a stand. The company's network of marketing influencers also didn't seem to object, she says.
  • It was kind of like a "virtual hug," Wiley told Axios. "It can be really hard, working from home and feeling isolated, when there's all sorts of crazy stuff going on in the news."

Flashback: Companies were less hesitant to take a position in the summer of 2020 when protests swept the country in the wake of George Floyd's killing. But abortion is a more fraught issue, company insiders and consultants told Axios.

  • While before that summer, discussions of race weren't uncommon at companies with diversity training and policies in place, abortion has always been a politically charged issue.
  • Until recently, abortion mostly wasn't discussed at work, said Teneo's Wackrow. "This topic raises tension when you bring it up."

The bottom line: In an ideal world, companies wouldn't be dealing with abortion rights.

  • "Companies already operate in an endlessly complex environment, [and] this is another [instance where] businesses are left to pick up the pieces," says Jen Stark, senior director at Tara health foundation, an organization focused on equitable workplaces.
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