CEOs Have Work to Do as Supreme Court Sends Abortion Issue Back to State Legislatures

Companies Focusing on Policies, Not Politics, Can Play a Constructive Role in Shaping the Future of Reproductive Rights

6/24/22 – – The Supreme Court in a 6–3 decision today ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. In weighing the merits of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the court overturned the precedent established in Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that in 1973 established the federal right for women to have abortions. It now will be up to state legislatures to determine the legality of abortions and set regulations within their jurisdictions.

Held: The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey
are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the
people and their elected representatives.

Last month, after POLITICO published a leaked draft of the majority opinion, I offered some guidance to corporate leaders faced with the challenge of communicating their response to this momentous decision. I encouraged companies to focus on internal audiences, emphasizing how important it was to reassure employees that insurance coverage for women’s reproductive health would remain a part of their benefits packages no matter what the high court or state legislatures ruled.

It’s good to see that many companies have made this commitment, going so far as to offer reimbursement for expenses to travel out of state for procedures not offered in the employee’s home state. 

I also advised CEOs to stay as far away as possible from politics and commentary on constitutional law or congressional maneuvering. Rather, I suggested they reaffirm what they are for and can control: the safety and health of their employees. By focusing on people, not politics, they will be better able to navigate this storm without picking unnecessary fights or dismissing the beliefs of employees and customers on either side of the highly contentious abortion issue.

Now that the Supreme Court’s decision is final, attention should turn to the states, where legislatures, governors and state courts will shape the future of abortion rights. There is work to do. Staying silent in this case is not an option.

Companies have a legitimate, important role to play in the legislative process. Reproductive rights effect every company’s employees, their families and communities. Hopefully, businesses, with the help of their public affairs and HR teams, have devoted time in the weeks since the POLITICO leak to define their priorities and positions, as well as plan their approach to their state legislators. Companies operating in multiple states will require a multi-state strategy.

A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll confirmed strong national support for Roe v. Wade: 61% of respondents were opposed to overturning the decision, and 63% said they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But the picture becomes murkier when you poll state by state. A Pew Research Center survey found that in Massachusetts 74% feel that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while in West Virginia, 53% believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Almost 60% of adult Mississippians oppose abortion rights. And there is even less consistency when it comes to restrictions on access to abortions on demand.

No matter where you operate your business, here’s some advice for shaping effective public affairs strategies:

Encourage a constructive internal discussion. This should not be a solo mission for CEOs. Start by establishing channels and platforms for all voices in your company to be heard and respected. This dialogue should inform the company’s public positions, allowing the CEO to honestly state that she/he considered all points of view before taking a stand. CEOs should also provide updates to employees as the legislative process moves forward.

Focus on purpose and policies, not politics or personalities. Ground your actions in the purpose and priorities that guide your business. Clearly state what you are for, not who you are against. Don’t direct your comments at any politician or party.

Champion moderation, inside-out. The key objective of companies should be to protect the health and safety of their employees. Next is to keep abortions legal in the states they operate and advocate for ”reasonable” restrictions on abortions. Here’s where CEOs must fight the urge to behave like politicians, embracing the extremes and rejecting compromise. One of the reasons little gets done in Washington is that both sides of the political divide will not budge from their all-or-nothing-at-all positions. CEOs taking entrenched stands will be ineffective and lose the support of their stakeholders.

Get a little help from your friends. It makes all sorts of sense to team up with fellow members of Chambers of Commerce and trade associations to present consensus positions and a united front.

Empower your employees. CEOs can take pressure off themselves and demonstrate respect for their employees by giving people at all levels of their companies (regardless of where they stand on this or any other issue) time off from work to participate as private citizens in the political process as they see fit. Encouraging them to have their voices heard in their communities is good for everybody. It’s especially good for democracy.

Expect chaos — and violence — in the coming weeks as legislatures race to fill the legal void created by today’s decision. Will states making abortion illegal be able to keep any major corporation headquartered there? How will health insurance providers cover out-of-state reproductive health services? Will there be a backlash against states that loosen the restrictions on abortions? Will there be pressure on the NCAA to prohibit tournaments in states not allowing or severely limiting abortions? And how will all this disruption impact the midterm elections?

I guess you could say this is democracy in action . . . and democracy can be messy!

Readers of this blog and “The Crisis Preparedness Quotient” know how cautious I am about business leaders tackling sensitive societal issues. However, there are seismic events and moral issues that compel CEOs to make public pronouncements on behalf of their companies. I believe the overturning of Roe v. Wade is one of them. But still, proceed with care — focusing on people and policies, not politics or personalities.  

UPDATE: 6/26/22 – – Corporations are assuring employees that reproductive health coverage will include reimbursement for out-of-state travel for procedures not offered in their home states.

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