Almost 200 US executives have signed an open letter arguing that restricting access to abortions is “bad for business”, putting pressure on state politicians over a polarising issue companies had long preferred to avoid.
The campaign brings together CEOs of technology companies Slack, Square and Yelp; fashion retailers Eileen Fisher and Diane von Furstenberg; and Bloomberg chairman Peter Grauer alongside leaders of scores of smaller companies.
Organised by advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Naral and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, it comes in response to “heartbeat laws” introduced in several US states this year which would prohibit abortions once doctors can detect a foetal heartbeat, as soon as six weeks after conception.
The letter, published in the New York Times, frames access to abortion as an issue of workplace equality and economic prosperity and follows a trend of business leaders becoming more willing to join the most sensitive political debates.
“Restricting access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion, threatens the health, independence and economic stability of our employees and customers,” it reads: “It impairs our ability to build diverse and inclusive workforce pipelines, recruit top talent across the states, and protect the well being of all the people who keep our businesses thriving day in and out.”
The “Don’t Ban Equality” campaign follows threats by television and film producers to boycott Georgia if a new anti-abortion law takes effect in the state where Netflix made Stranger Things and Walt Disney filmed Black Panther. Stacey Abrams, a prominent Georgia Democrat, has been among those arguing that a boycott will harm local workers and urging Hollywood instead to fund groups helping local women.
The new letter makes no mention of individual states, or of threats to cancel investments. America’s most valuable companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet, are absent from the list of signatories, despite having become more vocal on other political issues ranging from immigration to gay rights and gun violence.
“Business is a powerful platform and can truly make a difference, especially when we speak collectively,” said Eileen Fisher, founder of the eponymous retailer. She did not want “to further divide this already divided country”, she added, but she was not afraid of alienating some customers. “I acknowledge that some of our customers may not share this perspective. To me, the vital opportunity is that women keep talking with one another and find common ground.”
“I don’t recall a letter with so many CEOs stepping out on the particular issue of reproductive rights and abortion,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU, adding that she hoped the signatories would “embolden” others to speak up.
“As with all issues there comes a moment of recognition . . . They recognise they can’t just sit on the sidelines any more,” she said of the CEOs who had signed the letter. Support from business leaders was valuable to campaigners, she added, because “it is a statement of their economic power and it’s also a way of showing to politicians as well as the country that this issue matters to employers and it matters to the public”.
Leana Wen, Planned Parenthood’s president and CEO, said the group was grateful to have the support from business leaders. “Now more than ever, we must stand together to declare that reproductive healthcare, including abortion care, is necessary for all people to live healthy, successful lives,” she said.
The latest poll from PBS News Hour, National Public Radio and Marist showed that just 33 per cent of adult Americans support “heartbeat laws”, and only 24 per cent believe it should be a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion.
Separate polling by Morning Consult shows that new legislation in Alabama and Georgia has made abortion, contraception and equal pay higher-priority electoral issues, particularly for Democratic women and young voters. Candidates appear to have taken note, with Joe Biden, the early front runner in the Democrats’ 2020 election race, last week dropping his previous opposition to federal funding for abortions.
Few of the executives who joined the campaign commented beyond the wording of the letter, but Philippe Pinatel, general manager of MAC Cosmetics, said his company had long advocated “for the rights of everyone to make their own choices about their health and well being”.
“As a brand that stands for equality and women’s empowerment, we believe it’s important that we take a stand and join this cause,” added Andrea Blieden, US general manager of The Body Shop: “We completely understand that this is a sensitive topic and that every person has their own beliefs and we respect their right to do so.”