US companies break long silence on abortion rights
Abortion rights actvists gather outside the US Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on May 3, 2022

After carefully avoiding the taboo topic for decades, more and more US companies are taking a stand on the right to abortion, a sign of a new generation with growing influence and very different expectations than their predecessors.

Mere hours after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion indicating the national right to abortion would be overturned, a variety of American businesses began to react publicly.

"Given what is at stake, business leaders need to make their voices heard and act to protect the health and well-being of our employees," Levi Strauss said in a statement. "That means protecting reproductive rights."

Like the iconic denim brand, Apple has also pledged to cover costs for employees who have to travel to another state to get an abortion.

Revoking the nationwide right to abortion "will jeopardize the human rights of millions of women," the review platform Yelp told AFP, saying it would have "a seismic impact on our society and economy" and urging other companies to "step up to safeguard their employees."

Since Texas in September implemented a law banning abortion after six weeks -- before many women even know they are pregnant, and with no exceptions for rape or incest -- the stigma on speaking out has started to break.

Amazon, Uber and even the bank Citigroup have all announced they will cover the additional costs that the Texas legislation might cause for their employees.

"We're in a very unusual political time where this issue's come back up as a pressing political issue, and it will force companies to take a stand," said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school.

"Businesses that are located in states that might overturn (abortion access), they have to make a decision one way or the other: Are they going to offer that benefit in terms of travel to a location where those services could be accessed? Or are they not?" said Neeru Paharia, a professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

"It kind of forces a lot of these (companies) to take a stand on this issue."

According to The New York Times, Tesla, which moved its headquarters from California to Texas, has also pledged to cover its employees' abortion-related expenses.

'New generational thing'

The newfound boldness of US businesses is also tied to the fact that "in this country, people who are pro-choice are larger in number than people who are anti-abortion," said Paharia.

The announcements by several leading companies are part of a "general trend" that has been developing for the past decade and "picked up steam" under former US president Donald Trump, she said.

Immigration, LGBT rights, gun regulations, the Black Lives Matter movement, voting rights -- hot-button issues keep coming up, in a climate of heightened polarization, and many companies have been pressured to respond by their employees.

"This is a new generational thing," explained Mark Hass, a journalism and communication professor at Arizona State University. "The millennial generation, Gen Z are... increasingly concerned about who they work for, the values of those companies."

"Companies like Apple, companies like Amazon, companies like Uber... rely on having the best employees," he said. "So their employees are sort of their North Star," or guiding force.

Paharia agreed: "It's a tight labor market, and certain kinds of job skills are hard to come by."

In a country where public confidence in elected officials has been eroding for many years, employees are also expecting more from their employers, she said.

Schweitzer made a distinction between the new economy's flagship companies, whose employees are better educated than average and often able to work anywhere, and more traditional companies, which are sometimes located in more conservative regions of the United States.

The latter often have less mobile and less skilled workers, with a more limited influence on their employer.

"That's going to be a big part of why tech companies, for example, are going to react more strongly to this than other companies who would rather stay out of it," he said.

Unlike before, firms that have taken sides publicly have generally avoided backlash, calls for boycotts or smear campaigns.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio did introduce a bill Tuesday that would prevent companies from receiving tax breaks on expenses tied to covering abortion-related travel, but the bill is unlikely to pass.

However, "the groups that are interested in restricting abortion access, they're a minority. And they seem to be winning on this issue right now," said Schweitzer. "So I'm not surprised that they're being a little bit quiet."