The optimistic notion that corporate America would step in to uphold the public interest in the face of politicians' actions or inactions died Sept. 1.
That's when a spectacularly restrictive antiabortion law took effect in Texas, after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to go through without comment. The law not only bans all abortions after roughly six weeks — before most people even know they’re pregnant, according to Planned Parenthood — but also allows no exceptions even in cases of rape or incest.
Even worse is the law's so-called bounty provision, which in the eyes of the Texas Medical Assn. effectively criminalizes the practice of medicine.
We're seeing a very hypocritical silence coming from large corporations that should be resisting this law.
Shelley Alpern, director of shareholder advocacy, Rhia Ventures
That provision allows almost anyone, even outside Texas, to sue doctors, other healthcare professionals or anyone suspected of aiding and abetting an illegal abortion, and to seek damages of up to $10,000 per defendant.
The law "could normalize vigilante interference in the patient-physician relationship," the medical association said.
Yet the law, Senate Bill 8, was enacted, signed and made effective with scarcely a peep of protest from American corporations. That includes some of the nation's leading companies with Texas headquarters, such as American Airlines, Texas Instruments, Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
I reached out to those companies for comment but haven't heard back except from Fort Worth-based American Airlines. Its public relations department emailed me to say it had "nothing to share on this, but thanks for checking in," as if I had called to reconfirm a flight reservation.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise told me that it's "not taking a position on this legislation" but observed that its employee health plan covers abortions, allows members to go out of state for care and covers some lodging expenses if they do so.
"We're seeing a very hypocritical silence coming from large corporations that should be resisting this law, regardless of their moral standing, because of the implications it has for them as employers," says Shelley Alpern, director of shareholder advocacy at Rhia Ventures, which invests in companies engaged in improving reproductive and maternal health.
The most substantive reactions thus far have come from small or midsize companies with a decidedly youthful market. They include the Austin-based dating app Bumble, which said via Instagram that it has "created a relief fund" for "women and people across the gender spectrum who seek abortions in Texas."
Dallas-based Match Group, the parent of the dating app Tinder, also said it would “set up a fund to ensure that if any of our Texas-based employees or a dependent find themselves impacted by this legislation and need to seek care outside of Texas, the fund will help cover the additional costs incurred.”
Both companies are headed by women.
On the other side of the coin is Tesla, which has been expanding its footprint in Texas. The day after the law went into effect, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said on CNBC that Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk told him he "had to get out of California because, in part, of the social policies" in that state and that Musk "consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas."
Offered an opportunity to clarify, Musk tweeted, "In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness.
"That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics."
The ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft also stated that they would support drivers targeted under the law. Lyft said it had "created a Driver Legal Defense Fund to cover 100% of legal fees for drivers sued under SB 8 while driving on our platform"; Uber said it would "cover legal fees in the same way."
But that falls under the category of safeguarding their own narrow interests because the drivers carrying patients to abortion sites could be vulnerable to lawsuits as aiders and abettors, and might be prompted to protect themselves by finding other work.
Some women's reproductive rights advocates are crossing their fingers that big businesses were simply blindsided by the Texas law and that substantive responses are in the offing.
"Most times these bans and these really draconian restrictions have been held up in the courts, so that's provided a reprieve for companies from speaking out or taking action," says Jen Stark, senior director for corporate strategy at Tara Health Foundation, a philanthropy focused on reproductive and maternal health.
In 2019, leaders of 180 U.S. companies signed an open letter drafted by Planned Parenthood and other civil rights organizations expressing explicit support for "reproductive health — including access to safe and legal abortion."
But the drive ebbed as antiabortion laws got tied up in the courts and the conviction persisted that abortion rights enshrined in the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade and other decisions were secure. The court's greenlighting of SB 8 may have shocked businesses out of complacency.
"The dramatic implementation of this ban, paired with the bounty hunter aspect in the ninth-largest global economy and second-most populous state is just unignorable in terms of the workforce impact for companies," Stark says. "The silence is changing."
What's unclear is what even right-thinking businesses can do about the law. Boycotts can be effective in waking political leaders up to the consequences of extremist legislation — as Georgia discovered when Major League Baseball moved this year's All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver in response to that state's restrictive voting law. They can provide a peaceful platform for individuals to express opposition to noxious policies, whether fomented by states or organizations.
They can also hit the wrong targets. "We're keenly aware of the potential economic impact of boycotts," Stark told me. "No one wants to amplify the harm caused to front-line, lower-wage workers who are already hit hardest by lack of access to healthcare, let alone reproductive healthcare and abortion."
Companies could also make clear that reproductive rights will be an important factor in decisions to relocate to Texas or expand in the state. That would merely reflect the existing realities of employee recruitment. In the ever-intense competition to attract businesses, restrictive healthcare laws such as SB 8 could be a decisive demerit.
According to a survey by the research firm PerryUndem, "the college-educated workforce values abortion access and sees the issue as part of gender equity in the workplace."
Two-thirds of the survey respondents, including 74% of women, said SB 8 would discourage them from taking a job in Texas, 63% said they wouldn't apply for a job in a state that passed a similar law, and about half would consider moving out of a state that did so.
Another tool for exerting pressure is through corporate political contributions. The sponsors of SB 8 have enjoyed lavish financial support from corporate donors, as the indispensable Judd Legum documents on his Popular Information website. They include Dallas-based AT&T, which has donated more than $300,000 to the law's sponsors since 2018, despite a corporate mission statement invoking "gender equity and the empowerment of women" as one of its "core values."
Other large donors to SB 8 sponsors, according to Legum, include CVS Health ($72,500 since 2018), UnitedHealth Group ($90,000) and Anthem ($87,250).
Political contributions such as these are likely to come under closer scrutiny as the Texas law underscores the implications of antiabortion regulations in that state and others. It's possible that the contributing companies will start making noises about withholding such financial support in the future.
That leaves the question of whether they can be trusted to follow through. Dozens of companies that pledged to suspend political donations after the Jan. 6 insurrection, or pledged to withhold support to the 147 Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election, have reneged on their pledge, finding ways to funnel donations to those lawmakers specifically or to GOP funding entities that support them.
The experience of Toyota, which never made a nonfunding pledge and became the top donor to the conspiracy-mongering senators and representatives, shows how corporations can wilt under the spotlight. The automaker said in July that it had ceased those donations.
It's proper to observe that it's no secret that the working environment in Texas for women has long been a stinker. OxfamAmerica ranks the state 48th on its list of the best and worst states for working women due in part to its low wages, especially for workers in tipped industries such as restaurants; the lack of legal accommodations for pregnant workers or mothers seeking to breastfeed in the workplace; and lack of any provisions for paid family leave or sick leave. (California ranks second best, next to Oregon.)
Nor should it be a surprise that Texas, along with other Southern states, has been aiming to narrow abortion options. "We've been reaching out to companies and institutions for years and warning them that this day would come," Alpern says. "Companies have been in denial that their businesses are implicated in this through the well-being of their employees."
That should be a sufficiently serious concern to prompt companies to speak out against the law, and loudly. So far, some of the biggest employers in Texas are playing the neutrality card. That won't do any longer.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.