Texas is betting that its push to the right on abortion won’t produce a tangible backlash from corporate America. So far, that bet is looking like it could be correct.
Last week, a law took effect in Texas that essentially bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. The Supreme Court declined to block the law or rule on its constitutionality by a 5–4 vote. The law, known as SB 8, provides no exception for rape or incest and allows private citizens to file a lawsuit against anyone who performs an abortion or “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets” an abortion after six weeks, which is often before people even know they are pregnant. It effectively turns anti-abortion activists into vigilantes and offers them $10,000 per abortion if their lawsuits are successful.
Pushed by their customers and employees, big businesses and brands have become more willing to weigh in on big social and political issues in recent years, including voting rights and racial justice and immigration. But thus far, they are largely staying quiet on Texas’s anti-abortion law. Dating companies Bumble, based in Austin, and Match Group, based in Dallas, are some of the few major brands to speak out against the law and take action this month. Lyft followed, then Uber, in part because its drivers are among those who can be sued for driving people to get an abortion.
Shar Dubey, the CEO of Match Group, which owns platforms such as Tinder and Hinge, said in a memo to employees that the company was starting a fund to support employees in need of abortion care. “The company generally does not take political stands unless it is relevant to our business,” Dubey said in the memo. “But in this instance, I personally, as a woman in Texas, could not keep silent.”
In a pair of tweets, Bumble said it would create a relief fund for people seeking abortions in Texas and pledged to “keep fighting against regressive laws” like SB 8.
Bumble is women-founded and women-led, and from day one we’ve stood up for the most vulnerable. We'll keep fighting against regressive laws like #SB8.— Bumble (@bumble) September 1, 2021
Lyft CEO Logan Green said on Twitter that the company would create a driver defense fund to cover legal fees for drivers and that the company would donate $1 million to Planned Parenthood. He called SB 8 “an attack on women’s access to healthcare and on their right to choose.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also said his company would cover drivers’ legal fees.
This is an attack on women’s access to healthcare and on their right to choose. @Lyft is donating $1 million to Planned Parenthood to ensure that transportation is never a barrier to healthcare access. We encourage other companies to join us.— Logan Green (@logangreen) September 3, 2021
Even so, none of the companies responding to the Texas abortion law are leaving the state.
Other big companies appear to be sitting the issue out, including American Airlines, AT&T, Exxon, 7-Eleven, Valero, Dell Technologies, and Oracle, all of which are headquartered in Texas. The same goes for Apple and Tesla, both of which have expanded operations in the state.
Companies have been more willing to weigh in on Texas Republicans’ efforts to restrict voting with new legislation. In April, Dell Technologies and American Airlines made clear their opposition to legislation limiting access to voting in Texas.
“As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home, and honor the sacrifices made by generations of Americans to protect and expand the right to vote,” American Airlines said at the time. Companies including Microsoft, Salesforce, HP, and Patagonia signed onto a letter in May saying they oppose voting restrictions. “Freedom is preserved in our democracy when we hold free and fair elections that protect the fundamental rights of all Texans,” the letter read.
After the Texas legislature passed a sweeping voting bill last week, American Airlines told the New York Times’s DealBook the company had “hoped for a different outcome” and wanted legislation “making it easier to vote, not harder.” Dell said it would urge workers to vote and push political leaders to “focus on staying committed to a healthy and welcoming business climate for all Texans,” according to the Times, and other companies expressed dissatisfaction.
Corporations similarly criticized a law restricting voting in Georgia that passed earlier this year; Major League Baseball went as far as to move its All-Star Game out of Atlanta.
It’s unlikely that AT&T or Elon Musk or Tim Cook putting out a statement about Texas’s abortion law would have an immediate impact on the law itself or convince the lawmakers who put it in place to change course in the near term.
But the silence from corporate America on the issue is telling. Companies have become more comfortable with talking about controversial issues over the years. On abortion, however, many of them still aren’t there. They profess to care about gender equity, and this is a gender equity issue. But they’re not treating the Texas law that way.
Companies weigh in on a lot of issues. So why not abortion?
For years, companies tended to steer clear of hot-button political and social questions out of fear they would alienate consumers. But over the past decade or so, that’s changed: Many Americans have come to expect companies to take a position on a range of issues, including guns, voting, racial bias, and LGBTQ rights.
“It’s not abnormal for companies to take positions on issues that have a direct correlation with their bottom line,” said Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “What seems pretty new in the last five or six years is what we’re calling progressive corporate activism.”
The pressure is external, from consumers, but it’s internal from workers, too. “Many companies have stated values and try to create cultures that emphasize diversity, inclusion, openness towards a general kind of diversity of all types, and I think that when a state or even a country does something that goes against those values, those employees want a company to say something,” King said.
But companies appear to be unsure of how to approach Texas’s abortion law, given their silence.
In an interview with CNBC last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said there are “a lot of businesses” that “like the social positions that the state of Texas is taking.” He specifically cited Texas CEO Elon Musk. “Elon had to get out of California because in part of the social policies in California and Elon consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas,” he said.
Musk responded somewhat cryptically on Twitter, saying that he believes the government should “rarely impose its will upon the people” but that he would “prefer to stay out of politics.” Tesla did not respond to a request for comment from Vox.
In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness. That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 2, 2021
As Dan Primack at Axios pointed out, it could be the case that many business leaders and CEOs agree with Texas’s abortion law, but it’s perhaps likelier that there are other factors in play. Companies might just be afraid to take a stance, or, as Primack writes, male leaders just aren’t as concerned with the issue as women leaders are, and there are more male leaders than there are women. The people at the helm of both Bumble and Match Group are women. At the base of Bumble’s business is that it’s a women-friendly platform. In the case of Lyft and Uber, the law directly impacts their business.
The website host GoDaddy said it would stop hosting a whistleblower website run by an anti-abortion group in Texas after coming under public pressure.
In 2019, almost 200 CEOs signed onto a letter opposing laws restricting women’s access to reproductive care, including abortion, after Alabama and other states attempted to put in place restrictive abortion laws. Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy for the Tara Health Foundation, who helped get companies to sign the letter, told Fortune that it hasn’t been easy to get businesses to speak up since. “If they don’t feel the squeeze, they try to run out the clock as long as they can,” she said.
Some companies funded candidates who supported the abortion bill. According to the women’s activist group UltraViolet, sponsors of the legislation received donations from AT&T, Chevron, Charter Communications, and Berkshire Hathaway, among others.
Corporations might rethink their Texas plans, though that’s not certain
Texas has put a lot of effort into attracting businesses and workers in recent years. As Bloomberg points out, the state has used low taxes and a scarcity of regulations to draw some 4 million people in over the past 10 years. Charles Schwab, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Oracle, among others, have moved their headquarters from California to Texas recently. Podcaster Joe Rogan and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have also relocated there.
“Texas is doing very well bringing in businesses for a number of reasons, including the available workforce, climate for business, cost structure, and the hard work of economic development professionals across the state,” said Ray Perryman, president and CEO of the Perryman Group, an economic research group based in Waco, in an email to Vox. “For many companies, the very high costs of operations and taxes in states such as California make Texas a very attractive option, and we continue to see many firms relocating here.”
In the CNBC interview, Abbott touted Texas’s ability to attract businesses and workers and expressed confidence that wouldn’t change. “People vote with their feet and this is not slowing down businesses coming to the state of Texas at all,” he said.
But it’s not certain this pattern will hold. A lot of the workers Texas wants to attract are college-educated professionals who tend to have liberal views. They may not want to move to a state where Republicans are restricting voting and abortion and endangering public health by actively fighting against basic safety measures for Covid-19.
“Other states are competing for people,” Tammi Wallace, chief executive officer of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg. “If you look at what our state is doing, and then you see another state where they’re not doing some of those things, you might say, ‘Well, the money’s good, but where do I want to raise my family?’”
Perryman said there is a point where policy decisions and negative attention could make a difference to Texas’s economy, even if it’s only to slow growth somewhat. “We’ve looked at many of these issues where Texas has implemented controversial policy and have consistently found that there are negative implications,” he said.
In one of his group’s reports on voting restrictions, analysts found restricting voter access can harm the economy because of lost earnings and reduced consumer spending, and that controversial laws can reduce travel and tourism and overall economic development. They estimate voting restrictions could cost Texas nearly $15 billion in annual gross product by 2025. They also determine that the state ignoring Covid-19 safety measures reduces economic output and costs employers money when people can’t go back to work because of the pandemic.
Even if companies don’t speak out or exit Texas now, if they avoid it later down the line, it could have an economic impact and, perhaps, scare Republican politicians into changing course. “The opinions of corporations and knowledge workers can certainly make a difference, even if it’s indirectly or difficult to see at first glance. Many state legislators are fully aware of corporate opinions, and that awareness will hopefully influence policy over time,” Perryman said.
Whether companies should move out of Texas or cancel events there isn’t a question with easy answers. Amid the uproar over Georgia’s voting laws, some people pushed for businesses to pull out of the state, while others warned that in doing so they would cause economic harm to the very people they wanted to help. “Leaving us behind with boycotts won’t save us,” former gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams wrote in a USA Today op-ed at the time.
When people talk about the effectiveness of corporations taking a stance on a political issue and making an actual difference, the most prominent example they often use is that of North Carolina’s bathroom bill in 2016. It barred transgender people in the state from using bathrooms according to their gender identity. After the bill was passed, PayPal and Deutsche Bank called off plans to expand in the state, and both the NBA and NCAA canceled events there. The law was repealed in 2017.
King said that many people point to the corporate backlash as the reason that the bill was repealed, but they often forget the political forces at play as well. Voter opposition to the bill helped lead to the ousting of the Republican governor who signed it into law, and it was repealed under his Democratic successor. “There were some major political realignment issues that happened in the state prior to the reversal, so that was probably a more direct cause,” he said.
It’s not clear now whether companies making a statement on Texas’s anti-abortion bill would make a difference in the state right now, though more direct action, such as lobbying or seriously considering pulling out of the state, might. Regardless, corporate activism — like all activism — can be helpful in drawing attention to the matter and showing that it’s important.
State legislatures and governors in places like Georgia and Texas are likely waiting to see whether any of the backlash to their controversial new laws has an impact on their states’ economies. If it appears there’s more talk than there is action from business leaders, lawmakers may just bide their time, let the criticism dwindle, and move on. On Texas’s abortion law, there’s barely even talk.