The Reputational Cost of Impartiality: How Long Can US Companies Stay Silent?

From voting and LGBTQ+ rights to climate change and racial justice, Corporate America has spoken out in recent years on a wide range of burning issues, breaking its long tradition of remaining apolitical in the public square and sparking backlash. But on the issue of abortion, a vital reproductive right that is currently under siege from Republicans, the companies have largely reverted to their traditional silence and inaction, even amid public outrage over the possibility that abortion will soon be banned in almost half of the country. .

On Monday, Politico reported that the Supreme Court was set to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that enshrined the US constitutional right to abortion. The report, which included a leaked draft opinion revealing that the court had already voted informally to overthrow Roe, drew an immediate backlash from progressives, Democrats and choice advocates.

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Five days after this leak, some of the biggest companies in the United States like Disney, Walmart and American Airlines – which had previously spoken out on other political issues such as voting, racial justice and LGTBQ + rights – n still haven’t issued any shares. any plans or statements to respond to the court’s impending decision on Roe. As CNBC reported, JP Morgan, Microsoft and the Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business organization, also remained silent on the matter.

Aiko Bethea, an executive leadership coach specializing in promoting fair and inclusive corporate workplaces, told Salon that Corporate America would likely stay away until the reputational cost of fairness becomes too much. raised.

“At the end of the day, corporations are just reactionary.”

“The more the public demands, the more it … pushes companies out of their comfort zone.”

Bethea continued, “I think what we’ll see is that businesses will be more responsive and faster than they have in the past.”

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The immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s vote, if upheld in a final opinion, would submit the abortion issue to state legislatures, 23 of which already have anti-abortion restrictions on their books, according to the Institute. Guttmacher. Additionally, at least thirteen states passed so-called “trigger laws”, which would immediately ban abortion once Roe was expelled.

The Supreme Court leak presents Corporate America with a complicated public relations challenge. Over the decades, big corporations have contributed to the campaign from both sides of the aisle while successfully avoiding public scrutiny. But as transparency around campaign finance has increased, big business has come under more pressure to make sure their political spending matches their rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, in the case of abortion rights, this alignment has not yet been achieved.


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According to Popular Information, at least 13 major corporations — all of which ostensibly support women’s empowerment — have since 2016 provided $15.2 million to the Republican National Senate Committee, Republican State Leadership Committee, and Association Republican governors. Among them are Walmart ($1,140,000), which said “empowering women” is “good for society” and “good for business”; AT&T ($1,472,827), which describes “gender equity and the empowerment of women” as part of its “core values”; and Coca-Cola ($2,624,000), which said there is “overwhelming evidence that achieving women’s equality and empowerment has broad ripple effects that are good for society” . Also included in the list are CVS ($1,380,000), Google ($525,702), Walmart ($1,140,000) and Verizon ($901,150), which made similar remarks in support of reproductive rights.

RELATED: Corporate America steps up fight for abortion access – after backing anti-abortion Republicans

Only a handful of mega-corporations have publicly pushed back against the GOP’s anti-abortion agenda.

In 2019, companies like Bloomberg, H&M, Glossier and Amalgamated Bank signed an open letter saying abortion restrictions are “against our values ​​and bad for business”.

More recently, companies like Uber and Lyft have set up legal defense funds to protect drivers who could be sued for taking people to abortion clinics. Match, Citigroup, Yelp, Tinder and Apple have pledged to pay travel costs for staff members seeking out-of-state abortions. And Salesforce would help employees move from states where abortion has been restricted. (At least four of the aforementioned companies have funneled thousands of dollars to anti-abortion Republicans over the past few years.)

“Since time immemorial, corporations have justified their political contributions by saying they should give to both sides of the aisle. And that paradigm is completely rejected by multiple stakeholder groups.”

This week, Amazon and Levi Strauss & Co., also joined the fold to express their solidarity with the pro-choice movement. Levi, who will pay for employee travel expenses to obtain legal abortions, said his stance on reproductive freedom is “consistent with our efforts to support employees and their family members at all stages of their lives.” .

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“We know this is a tense conversation; it’s not something we enter into lightly,” the company added. “But women make up 58% of our global workforce, and in recent years many employees have expressed to management their growing concern about the rollback of all forms of reproductive care.”

Meanwhile, Amazon has pledged to pay up to $4,000 in travel costs for non-life-threatening treatments (including abortion) beginning in January 2023. The company, however, has not issued no public statement in response to the Supreme Court leak.

As companies face a clarion call from customers and employees, much of the pushback is also being staged by shareholders, who have argued that abortion restrictions are likely to hurt the bottom line .

Walmart and TJX Companies (which owns TJ Maxx clothing stores) are both facing shareholder resolutions that would address the risk of increased hiring problems in affected areas, as The Washington Post reported this week. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, abortion restrictions lead to lower labor force participation and increased furloughs, costing state economies an estimated $105 billion a year. The impact of such restrictions, the Institute notes, would be felt disproportionately by Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ workers.

In addition to Corporate America’s internal rhetoric and politics, shareholders are also scrutinizing corporate political donations, said Shelley Alpern, director of shareholder advocacy at Rhia Ventures.

“Since time immemorial, corporations have justified their political contributions by saying they should give to both sides of the aisle,” Alpern told Salon in an interview. “And that paradigm is completely rejected by multiple stakeholder groups. And now you can add investors to dissatisfied stakeholders.”

Yet, even as abortion is about to be banned, the vast majority of major corporations choose to remain silent until their hand is forced.

On Friday, Popular Information reported that Zeno, a multinational subsidiary of public relations goliath Edelman, instructed its corporate clients to “not take a position that you cannot reverse, especially when the decision is not final.”

“This topic is a classic ’50/50′ issue. Topics that divide the country can sometimes be a no-win situation for companies because no matter what they do, they will alienate at least 15-30% of their stakeholders Katie Cwayna, the company’s executive vice president for media strategy, reportedly wrote to clients in an internal memo. “Don’t assume that all your employees, customers or investors share your point of view.”

RELATED: Leaked Majority Opinion Says Supreme Court Is Set To Overturn Roe v. wade

It should be noted that abortion is not, in fact, a “50/50” issue.

A Pew report released on Friday reveals that more than 70% of Americans believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. Meanwhile, only 8% believe the practice should be completely banned.

But while the vast majority of the public support Roe, companies have been reluctant to step in because abortion has been “turned into a moral issue” rather than a health issue, explained Erika Seth Davies, CEO of Rhia Ventures. .

“We believe that [abortion] it is access to health care and it is a human right. But that has largely been something that has been handled privately. There is a stigma attached to it,” Davies said. “So to have more companies speaking out on this issue in this way would be extremely helpful in adding to the chorus, especially as it signals to their own employees, to their own workforce, that their health is precious.”

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