When our political system fails us, when our electoral system fails us and when even our judicial system fails us, can corporate America serve as our final firewall against terrible state policies designed to rob women of their reproductive autonomy?
That is not a reassuring question to have to consider.
This year, more than a dozen states have worked to ban abortion about six weeks after conception, before many women even realize they’re pregnant. In a handful of states, the bills have already been signed into law. Combined, they place draconian new limits on women’s control over their bodies, limits that appear to contravene Roe v. Wade, as well as Americans’ own mixed views on abortion rights.
Georgia’s new law, for instance, may interact with other statutes already on the books to criminalize leaving the state or even helping someone leave the state for an abortion. Depending on how the law is interpreted, women who miscarry might be interrogated or even prosecuted.
Missouri banned abortion at eight weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest — exceptions favored even by 57 percent of Americans who self-identify as “pro-life,” according to Gallup. Doctors who violate the law would face up to 15 years in prison.
Alabama’s governor has signed a law that bans nearly all abortions, also with no exclusions for rape or incest; it threatens doctors who perform abortions with up to 99 years in prison. A doctor in Alabama who helps end the pregnancy of a raped 13-year-old could therefore be subject to a harsher prison sentence than the person who committed the rape.
Such legislation presents a terrifying situation for women who miscarry or otherwise have complicated pregnancies; for women and girls who are victims of sexual assault; or for women who simply wish to control their own reproductive health choices.
But such legislation also presents a problem for companies in these states.
There are, after all, lots of big firms headquartered in places such as Atlanta, Columbus, St. Louis and Birmingham. Many have worked hard to recruit and retain talent, including young female talent.
What kind of sales pitch is it to say: Come join Coca-Cola in sunny Atlanta — where if you have a miscarriage, you might be questioned by police!
Or: Please manage an auto plant in friendly Alabama, where if your 12-year-old daughter is raped, she will be forced to give birth to her rapist’s child!
Or: Sign on to the Macy’s management team in Cincinnati, where if you have an ectopic pregnancy, our health insurance may be legally barred from covering the medical treatment needed to save your life!
All the pink ribbons and paid leave and Lean-In circles in the world may not be enough to recruit women to states where they have to check their reproductive autonomy at the border.
To be sure, larger companies and industry groups may be loath to take a public position on a polarizing issue that could alienate some customers. In fact, I contacted a half-dozen multinational companies headquartered in states that recently passed antiabortion legislation to ask whether they worry that the new laws might affect their ability to recruit talent. Only one (Delta Air Lines, based in Atlanta) responded, to say no comment.
So far, just a smattering of small film production companies have announced an outright boycott; in response to antiabortion legislation in Georgia (which offers generous film tax credits), they said such legislation is both morally objectionable and threatens the rights of crew members. The Motion Picture Association of America has been cagey about its own position, suggesting in a statement that it may not be worth worrying about a law that could get stalled in the courts.
But incentives may change, particularly if the courts allow these laws to stand — and employees begin to realize how intrusive they truly are. Recall that we’ve already seen companies cancel corporate conventions, sports and entertainment events, relocations, expansions and other investments over other social issues, such as North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill and Indiana’s anti-gay “religious freedom” law.
Presumably, most of these boycotts or canceled investments happened not because the companies have much of a moral compass. It’s because they realized — given the preferences of their employees and customers — that spending dollars in these places would be bad for business. Rattled by the corporate defections, politicians ultimately rolled back or amended their inflammatory laws.
Counting on cynical, amoral, profit-maximizing private firms to serve as the last bulwark for women’s rights certainly seems risky. But given the makeup of the Supreme Court, we may not have much of a choice.