Roe v. Wade has historically been framed primarily as a political battle, but its impending undoing also is an economic issue, one that is putting pressure on corporate America and any employer who values women in the workplace.
Taking sides on abortion has long been the third rail in the business world. But a growing number of companies, including Amazon and Citigroup, are showing their support for reproductive rights, offering new benefits to employees who live in states where access to abortions has been restricted.
Meanwhile, other major public companies — such as Lowe’s, Walmart, and Massachusetts-based TJX Cos. — are facing shareholder proposals demanding they report the potential risks and costs associated with new laws and proposed legislation that severely restrict reproductive health care. That includes the impact on hiring, retention, and productivity. Such an evaluation process can spur companies to identify gaps in coverage and address them.
It’s a strategy socially responsible investors have successfully used to get companies to provide information about racial and gender inequities in the workplace.
“Corporations have an opportunity to be one of the last bastions of defense for reproductive freedom in this country,” said Noreen Farrell, civil rights attorney and executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a gender justice organization in San Francisco.
Businesses are evaluating how to support employees who live in states where abortion may be banned or severely restricted if the Supreme Court weakens or overturns the 1973 landmark decision that protects a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. The draft opinion leaked this week that strongly suggested the high court will soon overturn Roe has accelerated that process. Such a ruling could allow more than two dozen states to restrict reproductive procedures.
Nearly one in four women will have an abortion by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Many abortions take place when women are in their 20s, accounting for nearly 57 percent of them in 2019, according to the latest available figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some employers consider reproductive rights critical to achieving gender equality in the workplace ― the right to choose allows women the option of staying on the job and advancing, instead of going through with an unwanted pregnancy that may hinder a career. Offering access to abortions as an employee benefit is also seen as a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining talent in a tight labor market.
That’s one reason why Amalgamated Bank, which has 400 employees around the country and a commercial banking center in Boston, announced this week that it will cover travel costs for employees or their dependents who need to leave their home state for reproductive health care. The bank, originally founded to support clothing workers, is also picking up associated child care expenses, recognizing that many women seeking an abortion already have children.
“If a young woman is unable to make a decision on her own — for how and when and if she has children — that’s going to have a wide-reaching ramifications throughout her career,” said Maura Keaney, first vice president at Amalgamated. “If you provide any benefits for employees, this is a basic part of employment. This is a basic human right. We welcome other financial institutions and businesses joining us.”
Beth Monaghan, chief executive of Boston public relations firm Inkhouse, said she is setting up ways to ensure that employees, no matter where they live, have access to abortion procedures. It’s an issue top of mind at a time when her staff can work from anywhere and is 80 percent female (with many under the age of 30). A handful of employees live in states that either restrict the procedure or have not explicitly protected it, such as Texas and Utah.
“If we want the world — and the workplace — to be a place where we all have equal opportunity, then we have to be able to choose when to start families and if that is, in fact, the right choice for us,” said Monaghan.
It’s impossible to know how many businesses will ultimately move to buttress reproductive rights for employees. Many aren’t willing to talk about the issue publicly. The Globe reached out to more than 30 Massachusetts companies, including Dunkin,’ Bright Horizons, Staples, State Street, and Wayfair, many of which have offices and locations around the country. All declined to comment or did not respond.
Economists, however, are unequivocal in their view that overturning Roe v. Wade would pose a setback for women. In particular, they are stunned by a line in the Mississippi case that could undo Roe, which asserts there is “no causal link between the availability of abortion and the ‘capacity of women to act in society.’ ”
“I found it really jaw-dropping,” said Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College. “That’s a question of fact. And economists know a lot about this.”
Academic research indicates that an unplanned birth reduces participation in the labor force by as much as 25 percent. That has a big impact on earnings and poverty levels.
The cost of transportation, lodging, and child care, as well as inflexible work schedules, makes traveling out of state to get an abortion a hardship for many lower-income women.
“Really, the story is about inequality,” said Kelly Jones, an assistant professor of economics at American University.
Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm based in Boston, has filed a proposal asking that TJX, parent of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods, release a public report by the end of the year that details the potential business costs associated with state laws limiting reproductive rights, as well as ways to mitigate any impact on the company’s financial performance. Trillium estimates that 40 percent of TJX’s stores in the United States and Puerto Rico could be affected.
Last year, women made up more than three-quarters of TJX’s workforce, including two-thirds of managerial positions, and accounted for 80 percent of promotions, according to the company.
“Many companies have set goals for gender parity within their organizations and leadership but achieving those goals requires support systems, including access to safe abortion,” said Sada Geuss, head of impact strategy and investment manager at Trillium.
A vote on a workplace impact report is scheduled for TJX’s annual meeting in June. The company has advised shareholders to reject the proposal, saying it offers a “comprehensive suite of reproductive health care benefits.” A TJX spokesman declined further comment.
Even in Massachusetts, where abortion rights are protected, employers should care about the national fight to champion access to reproductive health. As more states enact restrictions, Massachusetts will become a destination for abortion services, which could make it hard to get an appointment.
“Access will become exponentially constricted,” predicted Jesse Mermell, past president of the Alliance for Business Leadership and a former executive at Planned Parenthood.
For businesses still on the fence about wading into the issue, Mermell points out that polls indicate that close to 70 percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe.
“You are not going out on a limb,” she said. “You are standing with the majority and doing the right thing.”
Katie Johnston and Diti Kohli of the Globe staff contributed to this report.