The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Time for businesses to speak up for reproductive rights

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis drew attention for filibustering a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy in 2013. Today, she says, “I could not have imagined then that now I would be looking back at that as the good old days.” (Eric Gay/AP)
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Last April, as Georgia and other states pursued a host of new laws making it harder for Americans to vote following false allegations of mass voter fraud in the 2020 election, hundreds of chief executives at some of the nation’s largest companies signed a letter endorsing voting rights. Corporate leaders stepped forward to slam Georgia’s new legislation, calling it “unacceptable,” “wrong” and “based on a lie.”

But the corporate reaction this week to a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade? So far, mostly crickets. When Fortune reached out to 30 companies to ask them for their thoughts, reporters barely received the courtesy of a response.

In recent years, corporate CEOs have increasingly been willing to take public political stands, speaking up about gun control, for example, or their support for the Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police. So why the silence now, when women’s rights hang in the balance?

Wendy Davis, the abortion rights activist and former Texas legislator, told me it’s fear. Corporate CEOs, she said, are petrified “they’ll find themselves in a similar situation as Disney finds itself in Florida right now.”

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She suggests their employees help them get over it.

Davis is calling for an organizing push to help workers at large companies ramp up pressure on their employers. “Women who work in these large public companies need to take a stand, and whether that looks like an employee work stoppage or walkout, it’s an important part of organizing work.”

If Davis’s name sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it, let me help you out. She’s the Texas legislator who mounted a grueling, attention-getting 13-hour standing filibuster in 2013, in an effort to stop the state from enacting a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. I met with Davis in Austin last week, and spoke to her again after the Supreme Court draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked.

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Since her famous filibuster, things have — obviously — gotten much worse for women’s reproductive freedom. “I remember thinking back in 2013 that we were at the darkest day of abortion rights in America,” Davis told me. “I could not have imagined then that now I would be looking back at that as the good old days.”

Texas now bans abortions from the sixth week of pregnancy, relying for enforcement on self-appointed bounty hunters, who can sue people for up to $10,000 if they assist women in terminating a pregnancy. (Davis is one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed last month asking the law be overturned as a violation of due process and free speech.)

Since the law went into effect last year — the Supreme Court has refused to issue a stay — the number of abortions in the state has dropped. But clinics in nearby states are reporting sharp upticks in women seeking to end their pregnancies.

As a result of the Texas law, a number of prominent companies have announced they will cover the cost of travel for certain female employees or their insured family members who need to leave Texas to obtain an abortion. Amazon, founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, is among them. Citigroup is another.

Others have taken stronger steps. Salesforce, for instance, says it will pay for the relocation costs of any employee who no longer wants to live in Texas. But these shell-game tactics won’t protect women against the almost certain rollback of Roe v. Wade itself.

Faced with little corporate resistance, the right-wing is taking a victory lap. On Wednesday, conservative activist Christopher Rufo crowed on Twitter about the right’s success in keeping companies quiet on abortion. “The game has changed: executives saw what we did to Disney and have changed their risk calculations,” he tweeted.

Their silence is out of step with actual public opinion. Poll after poll finds a substantial majority of Americans do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. And for decades, employers have reaped the rewards of reproductive choice for women, who make up just under half of non-farm payroll employees. “Companies are benefiting dramatically by virtue of the fact that women can control when and whether they have children. And they have, if anyone has a vested stake in reproductive autonomy, these companies do,” Davis says.

Corporations, as I’ve pointed out in the past, can be cowards, desperate to avoid controversy. But when it comes to protecting a woman’s right to choose, American businesses need to toughen up and look out for their employees’ interests. In business and politics, as on the playground, the only way to respond to threats from bullies is to confront them directly. And if companies can’t do that on their own, their workers should help them along.