Companies had more than a month to formulate a response to the end of federal abortion rights in the United States, if they didn’t weigh in immediately after a draft opinion was leaked in May.
But when the final decision arrived in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Friday, relatively few had anything to say about the outcome.
Most stayed silent, including some companies that are known for speaking out on social issues such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights. Some of the corporations that blacked out their Instagram pages in 2020 or featured rainbow flags on their websites for Pride Month have so far been hesitant to comment on abortion.
“Executives are feeling some trepidation around this,” said Dave Fleet, the head of global digital crisis at Edelman, a consulting firm. “They’re concerned about backlash because they know there’s no way to please everyone.”
Many of the businesses that did make public statements on Friday opted to address the way the Supreme Court’s decision would affect their workers’ access to health care. In some cases they avoided the word “abortion” altogether, perhaps aiming for a more palatable response.
“We have processes in place so that an employee who may be unable to access care in one location has affordable coverage for receiving similar levels of care in another location,” Disney executives wrote in a memo to staff, adding that this included “family planning (including pregnancy-related decisions).”
Other companies that came forward Friday to say they would cover employee travel expenses for abortions include Warner Bros., Condé Nast, BuzzFeed, Vox Media, Goldman Sachs, Snap, Macy’s, Intuit and Dick’s Sporting Goods. They joined a group including Starbucks, Tesla, Yelp, Airbnb, Netflix, Patagonia, DoorDash, JPMorgan Chase, Levi Strauss & Co., PayPal, OKCupid, Citigroup, Kroger, Google, Microsoft, Paramount, Nike, Chobani, Lyft and Reddit that had previously implemented similar policies.
“The employer is the way a lot of people access the health care system,” Mr. Fleet added. “You’re seeing companies look inwardly first.”
A few companies accompanied those policy changes with statements. Roger Lynch, the head of Condé Nast, called the decision “a crushing blow to reproductive rights.” Lyft said the ruling “will hurt millions of women.” BuzzFeed’s chief executive, Jonah Peretti, called it “regressive and horrific.” Some business leaders spoke out too, with Bill Gates, the co-founder and former head of Microsoft, calling the ruling “an unjust and unacceptable setback,” and Sheryl Sandberg, the former chief operating officer of Meta, writing that it “threatens to undo the progress women have made in the workplace.”
But many companies that have spoken out on social issues like racism did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment after the Supreme Court’s decision, including Target, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Delta and Wendy’s. Hobby Lobby, which in 2014 brought a successful suit to the Supreme Court challenging whether employer-provided health care had to include contraception, declined to comment on the Dobbs decision.
In recent years there has been a growing expectation that companies weigh in on political and social issues. The share of online American adults who believe that companies have a responsibility to participate in debates about current issues has risen in the past year, according to the consumer research company Forrester. The expectation is even more pronounced among younger social media users, according to research from Sprout Social.
When George Floyd was killed by the police in 2020, public companies and their foundations committed over $49 billion to fighting racial inequality. Last year, after Georgia’s Republican-led legislature restricted voter access, some chief executives, including from Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, criticized the law, and 72 Black business leaders published a letter urging corporate leaders to “publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation. “
With abortion, public opinion is a little different: Forrester found that fewer public opinion companies should take a stance on abortion. Polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but a recent survey by Pew Research Center found that people have wide-ranging views about morality on the issue. Companies fear the backlash that could come from taking a stance on the issue.
“When it comes to the range of politicized issues within the sphere of a brand’s impact, few are as divisive and deeply personal as abortion” said Mike Proulx, a vice president and research director at Forrester.
Political engagement is rarely a straightforward choice for company leaders. Disney, which had long avoided partisan politics, faced internal backlash this year when it didn’t take a strong stance on Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, but then Florida lawmakers revoked its special tax benefits when it did. John Gibson, the chief executive of the gaming company Tripwire Interactive, was swiftly replaced after speaking out in favor of Texas’ ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
A 2020 study of 149 firms published in the Journal of Marketing found that corporate activism had a negative effect on a company’s stock market performance, though it found a positive effect on sales if the activism was consistent with the values of the company’s consumers.
Both engaging and deciding not to engage can come at a price.
“You’ve got to be careful not to take the wrong lessons from some of those moments,” said Mr. Fleet, of Edelman. “It would be very easy to look at companies that made missteps and say ‘well, we shouldn’t say anything,’ whereas in fact some clients not saying anything is the mistake that was made.”
Some companies warned staff on Friday to be careful how they discuss the ruling in the workplace. “There will be an intense amount of public debate over this decision,” Citigroup’s head of human resources wrote to staff. “Please remember that we must always treat each other respectfully, even when our opinions differ.”
Meta said publicly on Friday that it would reimburse employees for travel expenses to get abortions. But the company then told its workers not to openly discuss the court’s ruling on wide-reaching communication channels inside the company, according to three employees, citing a policy that put “strong guardrails around social, political and sensitive conversations” in the workplace.
But there are other companies that haven’t shied away from more full-throated statements on abortion, and they are urging other businesses to match their tone and commitment.
OkCupid sent a notification to app users in states with abortion restrictions encouraging them to contact their elected officials in support of abortion. Melissa Hobley, its global chief marketing officer, has been working behind the scenes to get other women business leaders to make commitments to support abortion.
“We had to say screw the risk,” she said. “This is an economic problem, this is a marketing problem. If you’re in highly visible, highly competitive industries like tech, law, finance, you are all fighting after female talent.”
Jeremy Stoppelman, the chief executive of Yelp, said he felt that it was important to speak out about abortion access whether or not there was a business case for doing so, though he knew that there would be users who opposed that decision.
“Certainly when you speak out on these issues not everyone is going to agree,” he said. “As we looked at this, we felt quite strongly that it was the right thing to do,” adding, “it’s been 50 years of settled law.”
Some business leaders said they were concerned about how abortion restrictions will affect their ability to recruit workers, especially those whose companies are based the 13 states that will ban abortion immediately or very quickly with Roe overturned. Those states include Texas, where tech companies have flocked in recent years.
Research commissioned by the Tara Health Foundation found that two-thirds of college-educated workers surveyed would be discouraged from taking a job in Texas because of its restrictive abortion law and would not apply for jobs in other states that passed similar laws.
“Employers like us may be the last line of defense,” said Sarah Jackel, chief operating officer of Civitech, a 55-person company based in Texas that builds technology tools for political campaigns. The company committed to covering travel expenses for employees in need of an abortion immediately after the passage of Texas’ ban, SB 8.
Ms. Jackel said the policy had strong support from both employees and investors, though the company declined to share if anyone had used it.
“It makes good business sense,” she added. “There’s no reason we should be putting our employees in the position of having to choose between keeping their job or carrying out an unwanted pregnancy.”
Emily Flitter, Lauren Hirsch, Mike Isaac, Kate Kelly, Ryan Mac, Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.