The reputational cost of impartiality: How long can Corporate America stay silent?

"At the end of the day, companies are just reactionary"

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published May 7, 2022 5:58AM (EDT)

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

From voting and LGBTQ+ rights to climate change and racial justice, Corporate America has in recent years spoken out on a broad range of hot button issues, breaking its long-standing tradition of remaining apolitical in the public square and sparking backlash. But when it comes to the issue of abortion, a vital reproductive right that's currently under Republican siege, corporations have largely reverted to their traditional silence and inaction, even amid public outrage over the possibility that abortion might soon be outlawed in nearly half of the country.

On Monday, Politico reported that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that enshrined America's constitutional right to abortion. The report, which included a leaked draft opinion revealing that the court has already informally voted to overturn Roe, prompted immediate backlash from progressives, Democrats, and pro-choice advocates alike. 

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Five days after that leak, some of the United States' most major companies like Disney, Walmart, and American Airlines – which had previously been vocal about other political issues like voting, racial justice, and LGTBQ+ rights – still have yet to issue any action plans or statements to address the court's impending decision on Roe. As CNBC reported, J.P. Morgan, Microsoft, and the Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business organization, have also stayed mum on the topic. 

Aiko Bethea, an executive leadership coach who specializes in fostering equitable and inclusive corporate workplaces, told Salon that Corporate America is likely to stay on the sidelines until the reputational cost of impartiality becomes too high.  

"At the end of the day, companies are just reactionary."

"The more that the public demands, the more it … pushes companies to go outside of their comfort zone."

Bethea continued: "​​I think that what we'll see is corporations are going to be more responsive in a timelier way than they have in the past."

RELATED: Why the right-wing is having a complete meltdown over the Supreme Court's leaked anti-abortion draft

The immediate impact of the Supreme Court's vote, if affirmed in a final opinion, would punt the issue of abortion to individual state legislatures, 23 of which already have anti-abortion restrictions on their books, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Furthermore, at least thirteen states have passed so-called "trigger laws," which would immediately ban abortion once Roe is thrown out. 

The Supreme Court leak confronts Corporate America with a complicated public relations challenge. Throughout the decades, major companies have made campaign contributions to both sides of the aisle while successfully avoiding public scrutiny. But as transparency around campaign finance has increased, big business has faced more pressure to ensure that its political spending aligns with its rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, in the case of abortion rights, that very alignment still has yet to be achieved. 

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According to Popular Information, at least 13 major companies – all of which ostensibly support women's empowerment – have since 2016 supplied $15.2 million to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican State Leadership Committee, and the Republican Governors Association. Among them are Walmart ($1,140,000), which has said that "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 has said there is "overwhelming evidence that achieving equality and empowerment for women has broad ripple effects that are good for society." Also included in the list is CVS ($1,380,000), Google ($525,702), Walmart ($1,140,000), and Verizon ($901,150), which have made similar remarks in support of reproductive rights.

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

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

Back in 2019, companies like Bloomberg, H&M, Glossier, and Amalgamated Bank signed an open letter declaring that abortion restrictions go "against our values and is bad for business." 

More recently, companies like Uber and Lyft have set up legal defense funds to protect drivers who might be sued for taking people to abortion doctors. Match, Citigroup, Yelp, Tinder, and Apple have vowed to pay for the travel costs of staffers seeking abortions out of state. And Salesforce will reportedly help employees relocate from states in which abortion has been curtailed. (At least four of the aforementioned companies have funneled thousands of dollars to anti-abortion Republicans over the past few years.)

"For time immemorial, companies have justified their political contributions by saying that they have to give to both sides of the aisle. And that paradigm is being completely rejected by multiple stakeholder groups."

This week, Amazon and Levi Strauss & Co., also joined the fold to express solidarity with the pro-choice movement. Levi, which will pay for employees' travel costs to obtain legal abortions, has said that its position on reproductive freedom is "in keeping with our efforts to support employees and family members at all stages of their lives."

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"We know this is a fraught conversation; it's not something we enter into lightly," the company added. "But women make up 58 percent of our global workforce, and in recent years, numerous employees have expressed to leadership their growing alarm over the rollback of all forms of reproductive care."

Meanwhile, Amazon has committed to paying up to $4,000 in travel expenses for non-life-threatening treatments (including abortion) starting in January 2023. The company did not, however, issue any public statement in reaction to the Supreme Court leak. 

While corporations are facing a clarion call from customers and employees, much of the pushback is also being organized by shareholders, who have argued that abortion restrictions are liable to hurt the bottom line. 

Walmart and TJX Companies (which owns T.J. Maxx clothing stores) are both facing shareholder resolutions that would address the risk of heightened hiring challenges in impacted areas, as The Washington Post reported this week. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, abortion restrictions lead to lower workforce participation and higher time off, costing state economies roughly $105 billion annually. The impact of such restrictions, the Institute notes, would be disproportionately felt by Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ workers. 

Apart from Corporate America's rhetoric and internal policies, shareholders are also scrutinizing companies' political giving, said Shelley Alpern, Director of Shareholder Advocacy at Rhia Ventures. 

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

Still, even as abortion is on the precipice of being outlawed, the vast majority of large, high-profile companies are opting to stay silent until their hand is forced. 

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

"This topic is a textbook '50/50' issue. Subjects that divide the country can sometimes be no-win situations for companies because regardless of what they do they will alienate at least 15 to 30 percent of their stakeholders," Katie Cwayna, the company's Executive Vice President for Media Strategy, reportedly wrote to clients in an internal memo. "Do not assume that all of your employees, customers or investors share your view."

RELATED: Leaked majority opinion says Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe v. Wade

It's worth noting that abortion is not, in fact, a "50/50" issue.

A Pew report released on Friday reveals that over 70% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in certain circumstances. Meanwhile, just 8% feel that the practice should be outlawed altogether. 

But while the vast majority of the public backs Roe, companies have been hesitant to weigh in because abortion has been "turned into a moral issue" rather than a healthcare issue, Erika Seth Davies, Chief Executive Officer at Rhia Ventures, explained. 

"We believe that [abortion] is health care access and it is a human right. But it has largely been something that has been handled in private. There's a stigma attached to it," Davies said. "So, having more corporations speak out on this issue in that way would be tremendously helpful to add to the choir, particularly given that it signals to their own employees, their own workforce, that their health is valuable."

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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