Why Companies May Not Speak Out About The Future Of Roe V. Wade
Commentary From Crisis Management Expert Edward Segal, Bestselling Author of the Award- Winning Book “Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies” (Nicholas Brealey)
Whether pressured by customers and public opinion or because they thought it was the right thing to do, many companies ramped up their corporate activism by taking a public stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the murder of George Floyd and climate change.
So why have some of them stayed quiet about the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that indicated a majority of justices were considering overturning Roe v. Wade?
Avoiding A Backlash
Fortune said recently that it contacted 30 of the most powerful companies in America, but few had anything to say about the court’s 1973 opinion guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
Abortion rights enjoy overwhelming public support. FiveThirtyEight reported that “The majority of Americans don’t want to overturn Roe. How polls ask about support varies, but the vast majority of respondents—somewhere between 85 and 90% according to most polls—think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, “Executives are navigating difficult terrain when it comes to deciding whether to speak out on social issues. At many companies, CEOs are under pressure from employees to take stands on political and social issues.
“At the same time, the stakes of doing so are higher after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that would terminate a special tax district that has allowed Walt Disney Co. to self-govern the land on which its Orlando-area theme parks sit.”
Location, Location, Location
Several businesses have found a way to support employees who choose to have an abortion while avoiding a larger discussion about the draft opinion on Roe v. Wade.
Ronald Zambrano, the employment litigation chair at West Coast Trial Lawyers, said in an email “Some companies such as Citigroup and Levi Strauss have pledged to pay for travel expenses for their employees in states where abortion is restricted to obtain out-of-state abortions.”
The Risks Of Litigation
“It doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to see how companies could face liability for helping employees leave their home state for an abortion,” Zambrano said.
He said that anti-abortion states would have a good chance of winning a judgment against companies that helped employees get out-of-state abortions. Businesses, on the other hand, would maintain that abortions were legal where they were performed, or that a state’s anti-abortion laws were too vague to be enforced.
“Federal juries are usually more educated and less ideologically extreme than state court juries,” Zambrano added. “But anti-abortion states would still stand a good chance of prevailing.”
Past Is Prologue
Carla Bevins is an assistant teaching professor of business communication at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. She said that “Several companies who were quick to respond after the leaked Supreme Court opinion have been part of the reproductive health debate for some time.
“When Texas passed the SB8 law, more than 50 companies—including Patagonia, Lyft, and Ben & Jerry’s — endorsed an open letter indicating restrictions on reproductive care would be ‘bad for business’ and would jeopardize the state’s economy,” she said.
“Many of these companies already have communication plans in place, so they can respond quickly to issues like these.”
Advice For Business Leaders
A Role To Play
Nadia Khamis is the director of corporate engagement at Planned Parenthood. She said in an email that “Many companies have already committed to diversity, equity and inclusion targets. Yet in refusing to address abortion bans, these companies are willing to risk nearly 50 years of reproductive rights, gains in gender equity and workforce diversity. All businesses have a role to play if they believe their people are their number one asset.”
Sending A Message
Bevins at Carnegie Mellon University said that “while some business leaders might be hesitant to bring the spotlight to their company by speaking out about this controversial issue, not saying anything still communicates a potentially powerful message to both employees and external stakeholders. In business, it’s essential to control the narrative your company is sending out.
“If you don’t take control of the information that’s being communicated from your company, then there’s a good chance someone else will fill that information gap and shine the spotlight on your company when you might not be ready,” she said.
“Business leaders today need to remember their companies are part of a political and cultural debate, and they are expected to weigh in on this issue and others more often than they were previously,” Bevins said.
“The ways in which company leaders respond will influence and continue to set examples for other businesses, regardless of industry. While company leaders might not want to respond, their employees, stakeholders, and even other companies see it as more and more necessary,” she added.
Navigating The Issue
Bevins counseled that “even if your company isn’t ready to share a full statement on company policy and action, you can still be upfront and let your employees and stakeholders know where your company currently stands. When you have more information, be sure to share it quickly.
“This is a time when clear, transparent communication, consistent with your company’s core values, will help you and your company navigate this controversial issue,” she concluded.
Edward Segal is a crisis management expert, consultant and the bestselling author of the award-winning Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies (Nicholas Brealey). Order the book at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0827JK83Q/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Segal is a Leadership Strategy Senior Contributor for Forbes.com where he covers crisis-related news, topics and issues. Read his recent articles at https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/?sh=3c1da3e568c5.