Where is the business backlash on Texas’s abortion law?
In 2019, almost 200 corporate leaders stood up for abortion rights. Amid a rash of antiabortion legislation throughout the U.S. South, they said: no more. Abortion restrictions are bad for business.
On Wednesday, Texas enacted an abortion ban stricter than the ones that proliferated two years ago, thanks to its unprecedented “bounty hunting” clause that allows private citizens to sue anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion conducted after six weeks of pregnancy. And yet this time around, the business backlash is missing.
“Their silence is shameful,” says Shelley Alpern, director of shareholder advocacy for Rhia Ventures who has worked to galvanize companies around reproductive rights. “Their very integrity is at stake.”
So why aren’t companies speaking up?
The unique Lone Star State
The abortion restrictions that inspired employers—mostly women-led businesses, companies with female customer bases, and progressive tech companies—to speak up two years ago were included in proposed legislation in Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Unlike Texas’s law, called SB 8, those bills never became law.
To some, it’s surprising that companies would ignore major legal changes in Texas; the state of nearly 30 million is the world’s ninth largest economy, long known for its pro-business regulatory environment. That pro-business lilt has attracted even more firms to the state over the past year; companies like Tesla, HPE, and Oracle all moved employees, production, or even headquarters to the Lone Star State.
One reason companies have stayed silent is that—like their employees—firms have a lot on their plate in 2021. Their workforces are scattered remotely; the Delta variant is delaying return-to-office plans; COVID cases continue to rise. News about abortion bans didn’t dominate the news cycle leading up to this law in a way that pressured corporate leaders to respond. Texas’s abortion ban going into effect at midnight Wednesday—and the Supreme Court’s official decision not to intervene almost 24 hours later—took many people by surprise. “The overall level of corporate awareness around Texas is very slim,” says Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy for the Tara Health Foundation, an organization that advocates for gender equity and access to reproductive health care. “Some of this is pure bandwidth and capacity.”
Will companies speak up?
But now that the Texas law is in effect, will companies finally speak up? Fortune reached out to about a dozen companies—from startups to Fortune 500 businesses—with a significant employee presence in Texas, including those that moved operations to the state over the past year. Most did not respond to a request for comment.
Bumble, the dating app business based in Austin, declined to comment but posted on Instagram that the company had created a “relief fund” to support people who seek abortions in Texas amid what the company called a “regressive law.” Bumble, led by CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, is known for its outspokenness on issues of gender equity and has engaged in the Texas political process in the past, lobbying for legislation to penalize the unsolicited sending of lewd images.
The strongest Texas corporate response came from dating app competitor Match Group, which is headquartered in Dallas. Tinder, a Match company, signed the 2019 letter advocating against abortion restrictions. Match CEO Shar Dubey told employees on Wednesday that she 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.”
“The company generally does not take political stands unless it is relevant to our business,” Dubey wrote in a note to employees. “But in this instance, I personally, as a woman in Texas, could not keep silent.”
What business can accomplish
Employers are engaged on issues of gender equity; the challenge ahead for reproductive rights activists is to get companies to see abortion rights as part of their gender equity commitments. That’s a view already shared by large shares of their workforces; according to a new survey conducted in August by research firm PerryUndem, two-thirds of the college-educated workforce says Texas’s SB 8 would discourage them from taking a job in the state.
Companies that spoke out in favor of abortion rights in 2019 said that restricting access “threatens the health, independence, and economic stability of our employees and customers.”
Stark, of Tara Health, rallied companies to sign the 2019 letter on abortion bans but has had mixed success in the years since getting businesses to speak up for reproductive rights at subsequent junctures. “If they don’t feel the squeeze, they try to run out the clock as long as they can,” Stark said of the challenges of getting companies to join these efforts.
Alpern of Rhia Ventures runs a program that aims to engage companies on the issue. The program has reached out to 70 companies—mostly in the Fortune 500—to ask businesses to close loopholes in benefits coverage that could prevent employees from accessing reproductive care; to reevaluate their political contributions to anti-choice politicians; and to consider making reproductive rights part of their public policy or lobbying agenda. Alpern says that about one-third of the companies the group has contacted have been willing to have “deep engagement” on the issue.
Alpern’s program has put forward shareholder resolutions, including one asking Pfizer to examine its political contributions to anti-choice politicians. The resolution, which cited Pfizer’s responsibility as a manufacturer of a commonly used abortifacient, received 47% shareholder support (average support for a shareholder resolution is 34%). Her organization has already engaged with Texas companies, too; at the beginning of the pandemic, the group contacted the state’s 30 largest employers after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott placed limitations on abortion access citing COVID-19 health risks; that effort received minimal response.
On issues like bathroom bills, businesses have thrown their weight around, threatening to move operations out of state or otherwise hurt a state’s economy in response to legislation. Often, employees lobbied their companies to make known their passion on a particular issue—something that could make a difference on this abortion restriction.
“Companies are responsive to pressure,” says Alpern. “It’s really that simple.”
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