Opinion: How the war on abortion rights is forcing companies to choose

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American companies should seriously consider how and if they want to do business in states that treat their employees and their employees’ families as second-class citizens.

Opinion: How the war on abortion rights is forcing companies to choose
© Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman/AP A person holds a sign during the Bans Off Oklahoma Rally on the steps on Oklahoma state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, April, 5, 2022.

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As the Supreme Court prepares to potentially overturn or gut Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide, conservative states across the US are ramping up abortion restrictions in anticipation. Texas is so far the state with the most extreme law in effect, having banned abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant, and implementing a private enforcement mechanism — incentivizing citizens to snitch on each other, basically — that could bankrupt anyone who so much as gives a woman a ride to an abortion clinic.

Opinion: How the war on abortion rights is forcing companies to choose
© Courtesy of Jill Filipovic Jill Filipovic

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But Texas isn’t alone: Oklahoma has also banned nearly all abortions, and several other Republican-led states are trying to outlaw the procedure at various stages and with various enforcement mechanisms as well.

In red states, it’s open season on women’s rights. Several Democratic-dominated states, on the other hand, are taking proactive steps to ensure abortion access. In Maryland, a new law means that trained medical professionals other than doctors will be able to legally perform abortions in the state. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sued to fast-track a decision from her state’s Supreme Court on protecting abortion rights.

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Private companies, then, should make a choice: Do they want to invest and operate in states where half of the workforce cannot make their own choices about whether and when to have children — choices that, from a pure business perspective, fundamentally alter a company’s ability to retain talent and a cohesive, healthy staff? Or do they want to take steps to protect their employees — and take their business to states where women are freer?

Already, women in the US have been prosecuted for allegedly having abortions; around the world, women routinely go to jail for what they say were miscarriages or stillbirths in nations where abortion is outlawed. In Texas, a 26-year-old woman was recently charged with murder over an alleged self-induced abortion. The state eventually dropped the charges, but the message is clear: Abortion is a crime, and in so-called “pro-life” states, women who end pregnancies may be treated like murderers.

Some companies are taking small steps to ease the burden on their employees living in states with these misogynist, reactionary laws. Yelp, for example, only has about 200 employees working in Texas, but will pay for them or their spouses to travel out of state for abortion care. Late last year, the company Salesforce announced that it will do the same. And Citigroup, which has some 8,000 workers in Texas, also said it will pay for them to leave to obtain abortions.

But Texas Republicans are not content with allowing private companies to assist their employees in the face of cruel laws. They’re already threatening penalties for companies that pay for employees to end their pregnancies out of state. And have no doubt that abortion opponents are not content at stopping at red state borders.

It’s not just abortion rights that conservatives are attacking. In Texas, parents who affirm their trans children may find themselves investigated by child protective services — a directive that has led many Texas child welfare employees to resign or hunt for a new job. Alabama just criminalized prescribing or administering puberty blockers and hormones for anyone under the age of 18.

This is a risk for companies, too: Do they really want to do business in a state where their employees of childbearing age can’t plan their families and may face serious financial or even criminal penalties if they end unwanted pregnancies? Or where their employees who are parents may find themselves under investigation and embroiled in a messy battle with the state simply for supporting their trans kid, or may even go to jail for providing their child with the medical care that a doctor recommends?

It’s a tight labor market, and companies are competing for talent. Women now outnumber men on college campuses and in many graduate programs, and make up an increasing share of high-skilled workers. And yet many women don’t move up the ranks as swiftly as men, and continue to face discrimination in pay and promotions.

A significant number of women, almost exclusively mothers of young children, found themselves pushed out of the workforce when Covid-19 shuttered schools and shut down childcare options. This is all bad for women, but it’s bad for companies, too, when they cannot attract and retain the most talented workers when those workers are female.

Anti-abortion and anti-trans laws only magnify this dynamic. If women can’t decide for themselves whether to carry a pregnancy to term, they also cannot plan their work lives. Being forced into motherhood means being forced out of work, or at least forced off one’s planned track. Researchers have found that women who are refused abortions “experience a large increase in financial distress that is sustained for several years.”

Even highly educated and relatively affluent women — the type who may be working at a company like Yelp — may be thrown badly off track by being forced to continue a pregnancy, and will likely face permanent hits to their income, not to mention their mental and physical health (the red states that seek to ban abortion also tend to have high rates of maternal mortality, and researchers have predicted that outlawing abortion could push US maternal mortality rates up by 21 percent).

Every person in the US should have a vested interest in keeping women healthy and free, but clearly anti-abortion lawmakers and the citizens who vote for them prefer to keep women’s lives small, constrained and controlled.

Companies that rely on female workers and want not just a diverse workforce but the most talented possible workforce have a choice to make: Support their workers by paying for their full range of health care and any necessary travel to obtain that health care, and seriously consider whether they want to set up shop in states that go after the rights of women and trans people, or see their talent pool shrink along with the basic rights of women.

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