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Corporations and Abortion Rights: Navigating the Storm

Originally Published in Ceoworld Magazine

Should the US Supreme Court eventually decide to over-ride Roe vs Wade as is suggested in the leaked draft opinion, US corporations will come under extreme pressure to ‘take a stand’. Many are already under such pressures.

Should they succumb or should they keep schtum?

Being Political

There is little doubt that the traditional corporate position of being ‘apolitical’ was never credible in a world where corporate money flowed almost endlessly into campaign contributions, PACs, and lobbying for self-interest. Continuing to claim an ‘apolitical’ position suggests that companies prefer opaqueness and backroom deals to making their political views open and transparent.

Tackling the abortion debate casts corporations into a storm that is replete with emotion and viscerally held views on all sides. Some may feel that this is a no-win situation which they are better just sitting out. That too, however, is not without its own perils and likely to be unsustainable.

In such a situation, what are the options?

Should Roe be overthrown, we will likely see a fragmentation of abortion rights across different States. This has a direct impact on employees depending on where they are employed. Corporations have a legitimate operational interest in deciding what sort of health care benefits they provide to their employees. Many have already outlined whether and how they will support their employees should abortion rights be removed in the States where they are employed. Some activists will still criticize companies for facilitating what they consider to be immoral behavior in facilitating abortion. But this is manageable.

In the end, these are legitimate operational decisions based on the sort of values companies hold. Some, like Hobby Lobby – a company with strong Christian values, may take a different view and are entitled to do so.

So far, so only mildly controversial.

Being Activist?

The challenges come when companies have to decide whether to cross the line from reacting to the operational impact of the politics of abortion to being activist in supporting abortion rights or not. And, if so, how to do so.

Here corporations need to tread with care. There is no imperative for them to take an activist stance. That is a choice that companies can make – or not. Neither should management allow themselves to be pressganged into activism. That would simply be a sign of weak management that, rather than thinking it though, is succumbing to the loudest voices – as we have already seen, unfortunately, around other issues.

Companies can legitimately become activist around the issue if it is core to what they stand for and to their corporate brand meaning. For instance, nobody is surprised when Patagonia takes up activist stances on environmental issues since environmental activism is what the brand is built around. But I struggle to think of many corporations for whom abortion rights are or have been core to their brand.

Some may decide that ‘women’s rights’ is something they have explicitly stood for and that gives them license to wade in on the issue. That may be perfectly reasonable provided it is sustainable. Corporations should, however, be wary of taking such stances only for it to be revealed, for instance, that their supply chains include women working in sweatshops in the Far East; or that they do business in countries where women’s rights are not high on the priority list; or that their performance on the pay gender gap is not particularly stellar. That would all smell of hypocrisy rather than principle.

Finally, companies may decide to support abortion rights on the basis of what constitutes appropriate politics in a pluralist society while respecting both sides of the divide. Let me explain.

US society is split on the matter of abortion. Both sides – pro-life or pro-choice – believe themselves to be morally right. Their position is deeply and viscerally held and is essentially irreconcilable. Corporations will have employees and other stakeholders ranged on both sides of this belief system.

Addressing the issue politically is not necessarily to make judgements as to whose beliefs are right or wrong thereby excluding the views of those who have a different perspective. Rather the political question is: given the plurality of views within society, which is the best legal framework within which to find an accommodation that is as satisfactory as it can be for as many of its citizens as possible?

When framed in this way, legalizing abortion enables those who wish to do so while doing nothing to prevent others from following their conscience and not participating if they feel that such practices go against their ethical views. It does not impose one’s own view over others and everyone remains free to behave according to their own moral perspective.

In short, corporations have a whole range of options around how to respond to what is likely to become an increasingly acrimonious debate around abortion rights. Each will need to consider their own position carefully and find their own way forward. Despite the cacophony that will emerge from all sides of this debate, no single route constitutes an imperative. Take your time, think it through and formulate a considered set of responses.

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