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Corporations are getting dragged into a debate they’ve long sought to avoid: Abortion

Disney CEO Robert Iger is questioning whether the entertainment giant would be able to continue filming in Georgia if the state’s restrictive abortion law takes hold. (AP) (AP)

For weeks, large corporations have been deafeningly silent on the wave of restrictive abortion laws being adopted in a growing number of states. Despite years of speaking out on social issues such as LGBTQ rights, immigration policy and gun control, companies have seemed to approach the new abortion restrictions like an untouchable third rail, cautious to lend their voice to what has long been the most polarizing debate in the nation.

But a confluence of forces could make it more challenging for companies to remain quiet on the sidelines, dragging them into a contentious national discussion at a time when more employees and consumers expect corporations to take a stand on social issues.

This week, three entertainment giants — Netflix, Disney and WarnerMedia — became the first major studios to suggest the new law in Georgia could make them rethink their work in the state. Companies that donated to lawmakers who pushed for the new legislation also have come under fire from the left following an analysis of political contributions to officials who have enacted or advocated for more restrictive laws.

And experts say companies’ history of engaging on issues, including LGBTQ rights, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the Trump Administration’s travel ban, could prompt their workers to expect them to address women’s rights, too.

“It’s one of the reasons companies are commonly reticent to speak out — it’s a slippery slope,” said Bruce Haynes, vice chair of Sard Verbinnen’s public affairs office in Washington. “Once you’ve taken a stand on behalf of one internal stakeholder,” he said, employees and consumers may think you’re “beholden to take a stand on every internal stakeholder.”

Disney and Netflix mentioned their workers in the statements they made this week. On Tuesday, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said in a statement that the company planned to partner with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union to fight Georgia’s law in court.

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“We have many women working on productions in Georgia, whose rights, along with millions of others, will be severely restricted by this law,” Sarandos said in the statement. “Given the legislation has not yet been implemented, we will continue to film there — while also supporting partners and artists who choose not to. Should it ever come into effect, we’d rethink our entire investment in Georgia.” (The Georgia law, which bans abortions after a doctor is able to detect a fetal heartbeat, is scheduled to become enforceable in 2020 and is expected to be challenged in court.)

Then on Wednesday, Disney CEO Bob Iger told Reuters that it would be “very difficult” to continue filming in Georgia if the law is ultimately implemented. “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard. Right now we are watching it very carefully.” He added that if the law takes effect, “I don’t see how it’s practical for us to continue to shoot there.”

WarnerMedia said Thursday it would “reconsider Georgia as the home to any new productions” if the law holds.

Once such high-profile names come forward, more companies could follow suit. On many social issues, said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick, which has researched the issue, it’s “Who’s going to take the first step?”

Yet others argue that companies such as Netflix and Disney are in a unique situation as part of the film industry. Haynes said entertainment companies based in liberal California often send workers into a more conservative state like Georgia to work on a project basis, making them potentially more likely to respond to workers’ concerns than other companies. Moreover, they’re probably getting pressure not only from their people, but from suppliers — the actors, producers and other Hollywood players that have been vocal on the issue.

Disney CEO casts doubt the company will continue filming in Georgia if abortion law takes hold

“CEOs may face employees who do not want to work in those states,” Haynes said in an email. “But in making those choices, they also may face customers of their products who don’t want to patronize the company because of their stand. In our divided country these are difficult choices for boards and CEOs.”

Yet some companies outside the film industry have been thrust into the debate. In a post for his newsletter, Judd Legum, former editor of the left-leaning site ThinkProgress, tallied contributions from six companies — AT&T, Walmart, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Atlanta-based Coca Cola and Aetna — that were made to state officials involved in the new state laws. In a separate post, Legum also called out Netflix CEO Reed Hastings for political contributions he has made to Missouri lawmakers.

Companies “present themselves as socially responsible and — particularly in this case, on women’s issues — as people who are championing women’s equality,” said Legum. “That’s where the disconnect comes in.”

Only one of the six companies named in the analysis responded to emails from The Washington Post requesting comment. “Aetna made donations across the political spectrum and to elected officials from both major parties,” the company said in an email. “Donations are by no means a blanket endorsement of an elected official’s position on every issue.”

A spokesman for Hastings said the "personal donations from Reed, on both sides of the aisle, were made in support of a specific piece of legislation aimed at improving the availability and quality of charter schools in Missouri.”

If more companies do wade into the debate, it will be a major shift. “When it comes to issues that employees or Americans think CEOs or companies should speak up on, abortion is always at the bottom — it’s almost like gun control used to be,” said Gaines-Ross. “It’s almost like one of those verboten issues that Americans think a company should not tangle with.”

Yet after companies sign petitions or speak out on issues such as transgender or LGBTQ rights, some reputation experts say they believe there will be pressure from employees to speak up on the abortion issue, too. “It’s inevitable,” said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser based in New York. “I think companies will hear it from their employees. They’ll need to see that parallel with what they did before.”

That’s why reputation experts suggest companies have clear guidelines on where they’ll wade in and where they won’t. “It’s risky to speak out on anything — you have to have a policy in place to help guide you,offering a rationale for why companies are or are not speaking up, said Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “You can’t just bury your head in the sand. You’ve got to be willing to stick your neck out to explain what your thinking is."

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