The leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision reversing Roe v. Wade presents corporate America with a political and moral challenge. Business cannot ignore the potential economic, health, and societal implications of a decision that will upend the legal framework for reproductive rights that has been in place for generations. On the other hand, no company is eager to insert itself into what will be a most contentious debate during the 2022 election cycle and beyond.
A few decades back, it was relatively easy to be a good corporate citizen without taking a position on issues that could alienate large sectors of the public. In the 1980s, I went to work for the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit business group with a civic mission that was founded by David Rockefeller along with the CEOs of most of New York’s global corporations, including Walter Wriston of Citibank, Bill Ellinghaus of AT&T, John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs, and many more. All were personally active in national and local policy matters but kept their businesses far from partisan politics and controversial social issues. They followed a simple formula for corporate civic engagement that combined charitable giving with service on public commissions and nonprofit boards.
This has changed in recent years, as businesses have embraced the notion that they are accountable to multiple constituencies beyond their board and shareholders. That concept has been branded “stakeholder capitalism.” This shift has led to pressure for corporate leaders to take stands on a range of issues that were previously considered off-limits, including marriage equality, immigration, climate change, gun control, racial justice, voter access, and even the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.
Moreover, corporate citizenship is no longer the exclusive province of the C-suite but is embedded in company divisions and committees of corporate boards devoted to frameworks such as corporate social responsibility or environmental, social, and governance. These groups have the responsibility for responding to internal and external stakeholders, including employees who want to work for a purpose-driven company that aligns with their beliefs; institutional investors that are prepared to pull funds out of companies that do not share their values; and customers who reject products and boycott brands that they deem unresponsive to the urgent issues of the day.
Social media has given voice to constituencies that were once easily dismissed as sideshows at annual shareholder meetings. Today, even a few disgruntled voices can create a tsunami of employee, customer, and investor activism that companies cannot ignore. For example, former President Trump’s business advisory groups rapidly dissolved after the eruption of Twitter activity over U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. Similarly, social media was the tool that got thousands of consumers to close their accounts at a department store that canceled Ivanka Trump’s accessory line and at the bank that banned financing certain gun transactions.
There is also increasing politicization of what were once internal business matters. Compensation practices, supply chain management and procurement decisions, mergers and acquisitions are all under the microscope not just of regulators, but of special interest advocacy groups and activists. Business decisions are subject to public scrutiny (“transparency”) and to legislative intrusion to an extent that this country has never seen before.
It will be a month or two before the Supreme Court releases its final decision on Roe v. Wade, allowing companies some time to weigh their response. The collective approach that corporations in New York have taken during the Covid-19 public health crisis may provide the best road map. Global corporations that had early experience with the coronavirus in China and Europe played a leadership role in helping the city and state deal with the onset of the pandemic. Companies sent protective equipment from their disaster-preparedness warehouses to essential healthcare and municipal workers. They installed updated software and provided equipment needed to support remote public education and carry out an unprecedented scale of local and state government operations such as data collection and analysis in real time and a deluge of applications for unemployment insurance.
Throughout the pandemic, New York companies shared best practices for workplace protocols and advised government on the needs and obstacles facing each industry. They assumed enforcement responsibilities for government mask, vaccine, and social-distancing mandates. They put aside competitive interests, working together to protect public health and preserve jobs. Corporations also stood with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and followed the science.
American business could take a similar approach if there is a reversal of Roe v. Wade, sticking to the facts and responding to the health and economic consequences that will surely follow that decision. Those of us who were around for the decision to allow legal abortions in 1973 know the tremendous impact this had on the lives of girls, women, and on low-income communities. Prior to Roe v. Wade, unwanted pregnancies and the obligations of single parenting had forced young women out of the workforce, ended their educational opportunities, and driven families onto welfare rolls. Presumably, many of the same issues will re-emerge in states that deny reproductive rights.
The responsibility of business should be to carefully evaluate the impact the court decision will have on their employees and communities and then reconsider employee benefits, personnel policies, and philanthropic priorities in that context. As they did with Covid-19, employers will also be responsible for educating their people about options in the states where they operate. Because human resources policies are already being rewritten to accommodate more flexible schedules and remote work in the post-pandemic era, there should be plenty of latitude to adapt benefits to the changing needs of women in the workplace.
Corporate America would accomplish little by protesting a Supreme Court decision, but can play a critical role in mitigating the unfortunate consequences of striking down Roe v. Wade.