A push by major US companies to help employees gain access to reproductive services following the US Supreme Court’s ending of federal abortion rights has rankled prominent Republicans and could deepen the GOP’s disaffection with corporate America as the party finds itself on the brink of winning back the US House this fall.
In the days since the high court overturned Roe v. Wade, conservatives have hammered companies that have promised to expand existing health care benefits to cover travel expenses for employees who may not be able to legally obtain an abortion in their state. The swift response among lawmakers at the local, state and federal level has ranged from calls for more robust parental leave policies in lieu of abortion-related benefits to legislative proposals targeting corporate executives whose companies pay for abortion care.
The discontent began even before the ruling, after a draft opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case leaked in May. More than a dozen Republican members of the Texas Legislature vowed in a letter to the ride-hailing company Lyft to introduce bills during the state’s next legislative session that would target companies that continue to provide abortion-related benefits while conducting business in the Lone Star State. The letter, which was viewed by CNN, made no mention of companies such as Tesla, whose relocation of its corporate headquarters from Silicon Valley to Austin was celebrated by Republicans last year. Tesla recently announced plans to foot the travel costs for employees seeking abortions since Texas law prohibits the procedure after around six weeks of pregnancy.
Other major US companies that have extended similar benefits – either following the leaked draft opinion or immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision last week – include Starbucks, Target, Airbnb, Yelp, Amazon, Meta, Netflix, Disney and CNN parent company Warner Brothers Discovery.
“After Dobbs, the alliance between social conservatives and neoliberal corporatists in the GOP is over. Look no further than mega-corporations caving to the far-left and offering to cover all abortion-related expenses for their employees,” Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said in a statement to CNN.
“Republicans ought to focus on pro-family policies to support mothers and their children, not corporate welfare for big business and the ultra-wealthy,” the senator added.
The abortion-related travel benefits have quickly captured the attention of Republican critics of companies engaging in fraught political issues. They see it as another hostile move against social conservatism by boardrooms across America, saying it is part of a larger trend of companies becoming more amenable to progressive causes and political activism. And after years of promoting corporate tax cuts and subsidies that benefited big business and kept industry money flowing to the GOP, voices like Hawley’s are growing louder across the party – especially among Republicans with leadership or presidential ambitions.
Jessica Anderson, executive director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm, Heritage Action for America, pointed to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ dissolution in April of Disney’s special governing powers – a move that critics have said was retaliation for the company’s outspoken opposition to a GOP-backed law restricting public school lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade.
“I think that’s going to become more of the norm,” Anderson said.
DeSantis is widely considered a top contender for the GOP presidential nomination if he chooses to run in 2024 and his tussle with Disney has helped launch him to hero status among the party’s activist base. A University of New Hampshire poll last month found him leading the field of potential 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls – including former President Donald Trump – among regular conservative radio listeners and Fox News viewers.
“I think conservative voters see the actions these companies are taking, and it’s one more thing that adds to their frustration,” Anderson said.
She added, “If the November election goes the way we think it will, there will be a huge mandate for elected officials up and down the ballot to take seriously these companies going so woke.”
Conservative hard-liners have been quietly laying the groundwork for a legislative assault on corporate America if Republicans win control of Congress and more governor’s mansions this fall. Among the ideas being floated are packages that would target the elevation of environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals in business or remove privileges such as antitrust immunity and copyright protections that major companies have long enjoyed.
“Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in April 2021 as efforts to pass new voting restrictions in several states drew condemnation from major companies.
As those discussions continue amid the backdrop of Dobbs, some of those involved said companies offering abortion-related benefits are beginning to draw as much hatred in conservative circles as the tech companies that Republicans have accused of rampant politically correct censorship.
Among those at the center of these discussions are Anderson’s group, Heritage Action for America; right-wing intellectuals at the Claremont Institute, which has become a brain trust of sorts for efforts to counter what it describes as “woke capital;” and GOP lawmakers such as Hawley, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, among others. In May, Rubio unveiled a bill targeting “radical corporate activism” that would prevent companies from deducting expenses related “to their employees’ abortion travel costs.”
“Our tax code should be pro-family and promote a culture of life,” he said in a press release at the time.
There is also a growing constellation of new pro-business groups that have positioned themselves as alternatives to the US Chamber of Commerce, which spent years drawing support from the GOP but has become increasingly divorced from the party amid efforts to broaden its appeal – including by endorsing Democratic candidates. The groups include the newly minted American Free Enterprise Chamber of Congress, which launched in May and whose founders have criticized the US Chamber for supporting “big government and ‘woke’ policies,” and the conservative dark-money group Consumers’ Research, which has launched TV ads in recent months targeting companies such as American Airlines and Nike over issues including their ties to China or taxpayer-funded bailouts.
“These conversations are happening, and I think there’s going to be a menu of options that conservatives put together … to really encourage action and support elected officials who want to do the right thing,” said Anderson, who added that a “quiet period of planning and preparation” is currently happening across a number of states whose legislative sessions have already ended for the year.
Banks – who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee and has floated ending lucrative copyright protections for companies that display “wokeness,” among other policies targeting big business and Big Tech – condemned the push by companies to cover abortion-related costs for employees. In a refrain echoed by other Republicans, he appeared to claim that such benefits are aimed at helping a company’s bottom line through employee retention.
“This isn’t about ‘women’s choice.’ An abortion costs less than paid family leave and allows companies to retain employees. These corporations are telling women that their children have negative value. Americans will not forget that,” Banks said.
Companies that have vowed to cover abortion-related expenses do offer paid parental leave, though it may not be as generous as some Republicans would like. Yelp, for instance, offers “14 weeks of paid maternity and baby bonding leave” for “birthing parents,” while “non-birthing parents get up to 8 weeks of paid baby bonding leave,” according to its website. Target, which this month will reportedly begin covering employees’ travel to states where abortion is legal, currently offers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to “new moms” who are part-time and full-time hourly employees.
A winning issue with the GOP base
While the face-off between conservatives and corporate America first spilled into the open last spring, as well-known brands such as Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines publicly condemned a GOP-backed voting law in Georgia that civil rights groups said would disenfranchise minority voters, it has since become a focal point for Republicans – such as DeSantis and Hawley – who are widely believed to be eyeing White House bids in 2024 and see the push as a winner with the party’s grassroots base.
Also in that camp is former Vice President Mike Pence, who has become an outspoken critic of ESG as he weighs a presidential bid in the next two years. Pence, who has long been a vocal ally of the anti-abortion movement and said that the ending of federal abortion rights “righted a historic wrong,” told CNN in a statement that company executives should refrain from staking out positions on the issue of abortion.
“Corporate CEOs would be wise to focus their attention on the traditional role of a corporation – creating value for shareholders – rather than using corporate profits to support the abortion industry,” Pence said.
Still, the growing conservative effort to challenge perceived political activism by companies – including those that have extended new benefits in the wake of the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling – has not yet risen to sea change levels. Republicans have perhaps been more focused in the immediate term on capitalizing on the high court decision to enact new abortion restrictions – at the state and federal level – instead of punishing companies. Another potential 2024 GOP hopeful, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that she would not target companies that have workers in her state and have pledged to cover their abortion-related travel expenses. (A so-called trigger law that took effect immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling banned clinical and medicated abortions in South Dakota.)
Asked whether she would go after such companies operating in her state, Noem told CBS host Margaret Brennan, “Those aren’t the conversations we’re having.
But as the party’s base becomes increasingly hostile to corporate America, responses like Noem’s may no longer be satisfactory – and could be potentially damaging in a future GOP presidential primary.
“I would like to see more Republican governors – regardless of whether these companies are in their states or not – taking steps to voice concern about this shift in companies becoming so political in what they are standing for,” Anderson said. “There are still a lot of Republicans who need to say something.”