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More Employers Should Cover Abortion Travel Costs

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Looming decisions. (Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg)
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The list of big companies that have said they will help cover employees’ abortion-related travel costs is growing. It now includes Amazon, Yelp, Levi-Strauss, Microsoft, Apple and Citigroup, among others. Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are reportedly considering joining the crowd, and Bank of America is as well. 

They should. Other employers should, too.

Twenty-six states are expected to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned, as seems likely when the Supreme Court issues its final opinion.(1) Losing access to abortion could have huge repercussions for the workforce by compelling women to have more children than they want or start families sooner than they planned. Women make up half the workforce, although their disproportionate share of child-care responsibilities already makes them more likely than men to hold part-time jobs. Repealing Roe could exacerbate those circumstances; most women seeking abortions cite economic or employment reasons.

Overturning Roe would turn some major cities, where many large employers are based, into abortion deserts.(2)That means employers with significant presences in cities like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami and Cincinnati have choices to make about how they will extend their health care coverage to support female employees. (Walmart, Kroger, Target, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, Procter & Gamble and Wells Fargo either didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to share their policies, but I will update this column if they respond.) 

Whether they like it or not, employers are right in the middle of one of the most controversial issues of American politics. Indeed, Walmart, Lowe’s and TJX are already facing proxy votes from activist shareholders on the issue. 

For companies struggling with what to do, there are ways they can support access to abortion in line with their existing health care policies and practices. A few guidelines to keep in mind:

Frame it as health care (because it is)

Abortion is health care, and employers are by far the biggest purveyors of health insurance in the US. A company policy that will cover travel costs for a visit to a far-flung specialist should also cover abortion if the patient-employee is unable to access it locally. That’s how Citigroup Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser explained it to shareholders: “We’ve covered reproductive health-care benefits for over 20 years, and our practice has also been to make sure our employees have the same health coverage no matter where in the US they live.”

That echoes the language that Yelp used to describe its stance: “As a remote-first company with a distributed workforce, this new benefit allows our US employees and their dependents to have equitable access to reproductive care, regardless of where they live.”

One of the worst things employers can do at this moment is suggest that they aren’t taking the issue seriously, as a Sony executive discovered on Thursday.

Protect employee privacy

The good news is that because so many large companies are already in the business of providing access to health care, many will have thought through how to protect employee privacy. After all, employees get antidepressants, colonoscopies and gallbladder surgeries through employer-provided insurance without worrying the boss will find out. It shouldn’t be any different for abortion. Yelp, for example, is using its insurance provider to extend abortion travel coverage to employees and their dependents.

Companies where this approach wouldn’t work, however, could follow the example of Match, the Dallas-based parent of Tinder. As Bloomberg News’ Kelsey Butler reported, Texas-based Match employees can contact Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, which will then arrange their travel and lodging, which is paid for by a fund established by Match CEO Shar Dubey. Because everything is handled through a third party, employee privacy should be assured.

Don’t worry about the reaction of anti-Roe customers or clients

Mike Toffel, a Harvard Business School professor who has spent years tracking CEO activism, said there is little evidence that anti-Roe consumers would punish a company for extending its health benefits in this way. I asked Toffel whether, for example, a shopper would hesitate before picking up a new pair of Levi’s. It was unlikely, he said, unless there were picketers at the door of the store. Even in a polarized country, politics aren’t on most consumers’ minds when they shop. Moreover, customers and the public often have short memories. 

Employees are a different matter. Workers tend to remember when an employer had their back. That’s what Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan emphasized in an interview with CBS: “With all things like this, we look at what our team needs from us. I could have a personal point of view, but that’s not what we do.”

Ignore the inevitable political grandstanding

Politicians looking to capture media attention are likely to raise a fuss. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, has introduced a bill that would bar companies from writing off abortion costs the way they can account for other business expenses, including employee benefits. A Texas state legislator has sent irate letters to Citigroup. Republicans in the US House of Representatives threatened to cancel the bank’s government contracts. 

This might alarm CEOs who are just trying to run their businesses, but in today’s fraught political landscape, it is difficult for companies to avoid taking flak from one side or another. Plus, enough businesses have made public their plans to support abortion access that any firm sticking its head above the parapet now is hardly likely to become a major target. It takes guts to go first; it shouldn’t take quite as much courage to go 20th. 

Covering an employee’s medical travel costs is a fairly mild step compared with, say, calling on Congress to enshrine abortion access into law or threatening to leave states that ban abortion. 

The situation is somewhat akin to when Disney began offering health benefits to gay employees’ domestic partners, said Toffel. That was a far cry from calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Employers no doubt would prefer to focus on the many other issues facing them at the moment: inflation, supply-chain woes, staffing shortages and the rest of it. But we don’t always get to pick our fights; sometimes they pick us.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Why Wall Street Can’t Escape the Culture Wars:  Paul J. Davies

Yellen Is Right About the Costs of Overturning Roe: Julianna Goldman

A Christian Flag Roiled Boston City Hall. It Shouldn’t Have.: Stephen L. Carter

(1) Six-week bans will have an effect also. Pregnancy is dated from the first day of a woman’s last period, not from the date of fertilization, so awoman who gets a positive pregnancy test 28 days after her last period is considered four weeks pregnant. 57% of abortions happen after six weeks.

(2) This would mean that the average patient would have to travel 282 miles to a clinic, rather than the 33 miles she has to travel today, according to research led by Caitlin Myers, an economist at Middlebury College.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

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