When It Comes to Reproductive Rights, Even ‘Feminist’ Companies Stay Silent
These days, it’s good business to stand against an increasingly unpopular president whose brand seems mostly to consist of grammatically questionable tweets and an unhealthy fixation with his critics. The U.S. may have installed a businessman in the White House, but in the months since the CEO-in-chief took office, corporate America has not necessarily been a friend to Donald Trump’s administration. As Trump renegs on America’s efforts to reduce the global effects of climate change, nearly half of Fortune 500 companies have set their own goals for cleaner energy and emissions reductions. Trump’s proposed ban on transgender Americans in the military runs contrary to growing support for trans rights among some of America’s biggest companies and sports organizations. And in the wake of white supremacist rallies and a deadly attack on anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, even Trump’s own secretary of state, Ur-corporate bigwig Rex Tillerson, worked to distance himself from a president who described some neo-Nazis in Virginia as “good people,” while business leaders bailed on the president’s manufacturing council.
But there’s one issue that remains taboo for big biz: reproductive rights, especially abortion. Republican lawmakers are increasingly focused on making abortion difficult or impossible to access, and in some states conservative lawmakers are on an open crusade to make the procedure illegal, period. Between 2011 and 2016, GOP politicians passed more abortion restrictions than in any other five-year period since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Abortion providers, financially unable to comply with these new regulations, are closing their doors in record numbers. Seven states have just one legal abortion clinic left, and in Kentucky, the lone facility is suing the state to remain open.
At the same time, a milquetoast facsimile of feminism has become de rigueur for corporations that want to boost their reputation with increasingly social justice-minded consumers. Athletics outfitters are particularly adept at turning female empowerment into marketing successes, and Dove is perhaps the best-known big-brand hawker of feminism, deploying heavy-handed body acceptance messages to sell soap. It’s all very noncontroversial, focused on platitudes about self-empowerment instead of collective liberation. Wear a T-shirt, become a feminist. Go jogging, become a feminist. Wash behind your ears, become a feminist. No unseemly political engagement necessary.
But while corporate America loves to sell feminism-lite, when it comes to backing the most basic feminist beliefs about bodily autonomy, there are few allies to be found. Indeed, increasingly outspoken Fortune 500 companies have remained almost entirely silent on the subject of supporting access to abortion and even contraception. Where is the corporate outrage? Dr. Daniel Grossman, an abortion rights advocate and professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at UC Berkeley, recently asked this question in The Dallas Morning News, noting that a coalition of Texas businesses were able to shut down state lawmakers’ attempts at passing an anti-trans “bathroom bill,” but said nothing when those same lawmakers passed a law forbidding private insurance coverage for abortion care.
The closest most businesses will come to backing abortion rights is to support Planned Parenthood, the nation’s foremost reproductive health provider and advocacy organization, usually through donations or public partnerships, such as the one between the provider and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. But Planned Parenthood itself frequently reminds people that abortion services make up a single-digit fraction of the care it provides. With all the shame and stigma that still surrounds the procedure, even pro-choice organizations are careful to walk that line, explaining again and again that abortion is only one service among a constellation of necessary women’s health and family planning options.
When businesses do support reproductive rights, they can expect blowback from anti-abortion groups: Bank of America and other Planned Parenthood allies have faced protests from groups that oppose abortion and, in many cases, contraception. The clothier Lands’ End came under fire from right-wing groups for daring to include an interview with feminist icon Gloria Steinem in its catalogue pages. When the retailer pulled the content, Lands’ End was hit from the other direction, by pro-choice shoppers disappointed that the outfit would capitulate to anti-abortion pressure.
But this isn’t just about bad publicity or marketing flubs: Being able to decide whether to become or stay pregnant is an integral part of economic security for women and their families, similar to equal pay, parental leave, and maternity coverage in health insurance. While none of these issues has received an adequate amount of support from the more socially conscious members of the Fortune 500, reproductive rights are particularly stuck in a shame spiral, and the only way out of that spiral is to resist its pull. Mainstream businesses have the cultural and economic clout to do it, and yet even the best-known “feminist” corporate citizens have been reticent to champion the right to choose. For instance, the closest Facebook has come to visibly supporting pro-choice initiatives is Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s recent, personal $1 million dollar donation to Planned Parenthood and her related Facebook post in which she spoke out against the Trump administration’s move to block foreign aid for organizations that provide abortion counseling.
As long as this is our model for corporate responsibility when it comes to gender equality, we will not see boardrooms full of people who are unafraid to sign letters to lawmakers opposing abortion insurance bans, or holding press conferences to decry medically unnecessary regulations that push legal abortion providers out of underserved areas. And the evidence increasingly suggests corporations’ advocacy on these issues may not harm them—financially or reputationally—outside from a few fizzled-out calls for boycotts from fringe social conservative factions. Public support of abortion is as high as it’s ever been. In fact, according to the feminist nonprofit Ultraviolet, abortion access is more popular than Donald Trump.
Access to abortion care cannot be separated from the wider goals of social justice. Do-gooder companies that support anti-racist initiatives, welcome nondiscrimination initiatives for the LGBTQ community, and work to minimize harm to the environment must integrate public support for reproductive rights into their corporate culture. Luckily, social justice isn’t a zero-sum game, and there’s no time like the present to start playing.