The prospect of the Supreme Court reversing the reproductive rights it granted to all Americans in 1973 has put the country’s largest employers in a position that almost all of them had hoped to avoid.

Chief executives have become increasingly vocal in the country’s biggest debates, from voting rights to gun control, infuriating rightwing politicians who accuse corporate America of embracing “woke” liberal causes. Abortion had been the exception.

“If you think business people want to get involved with abortion, you need your head examined,” Richard Edelman, head of the eponymous public relations group, said after the leak of the draft ruling which would overturn the Roe vs Wade precedent that has protected abortion access for almost 50 years.

That leak, however, meant “they have no choice” but to take a position, he added.

The news that brought protesters on to the streets was greeted with near silence in the country’s largest boardrooms, prompting public statements by only a few large companies.

“We know this is a fraught conversation; it’s not something we enter into lightly,” said jeans brand Levi Strauss, one of the few companies to respond.

Abortion was “a tough issue”, echoed Brian Moynihan, chair and chief executive of Bank of America. Roe vs Wade was “the settled law of the land”, he told CBS, before adding the caveat that his opinion did not reflect that of all of his employees.

The reluctance to engage in one of the country’s deepest social divides has raised questions about the limits of corporate activism.

“Not saying anything is saying something,” said Laura Gitman, chief operating officer of BSR, a group which advises businesses on their social responsibilities. “By not speaking up, they are [implicitly] supporting the restrictions.”

But Gitman added that she expected more companies to take public positions against the rollback of abortion rights as they face pressure from employees, customers and investors and as labour shortages highlight the need to make it easier for women to work.

Earlier bills restricting abortion access in Texas, Oklahoma and other states had built expectations of the possibility of the Supreme Court ruling this way, said Jennifer Stark, senior director of corporate strategy for the Tara Health Foundation, which funds groups supporting abortion access.

“There’s been kind of this hurricane forming off the coast,” she said. “We have been working with businesses behind the scenes to brace for impact for quite some time.”

Activists were engaging companies through an economic lens, she said, describing abortion access as “fundamentally an issue of economic stability, empowerment and economic justice”.

That argument was echoed in the few corporate statements opposing the prospective Supreme Court ruling.

“Efforts to further restrict or criminalise [abortion] access would have far-reaching consequences for the American workforce, the US economy and our nation’s pursuit of gender and racial equity,” Levi Strauss said, adding that they would set back the gains women had made in the workplace since 1973 and disproportionately affect women of colour.

Caitlin Knowles Myers, a Middlebury College economics professor who was one of 150 economists to submit a brief to the court, said the draft ruling had not addressed the “decades of rigorous evidence” that access to abortion was “inexorably intertwined” with women’s economic lives.

“Men and women earn pretty similarly up until they become parents, then women’s earnings fall off a cliff by about 33 per cent,” Myers said.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates state-level abortion restrictions already cost state economies $105bn per year by reducing women’s participation in the labour force and their earnings.

Groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce have also highlighted the role that a lack of affordable childcare is playing in parents leaving the workforce at a time when a record 11.5mn positions remain unfilled.

Economic and workplace equity arguments have struggled to sway anti-abortion Americans or Republican politicians, however.

Executives were now “more worried about the reprisals from opportunistic politicians”, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale School of Management professor who pointed to the battle Walt Disney has found itself in with Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis over his administration’s LGBTQ policies.

Abortion could be another fight that fractures relations between leading companies and the Republican party, despite continued alignment on many tax and regulatory issues.

Tara Health’s Stark said: “It poses a larger question for businesses to think about their alignment with elected officials when elected officials are willing to do things which destabilise their workforce and their communities.”

Sonnenfeld said: “The CEOs have to tell these politicians to stop dividing the nation on these wedge issues.” Chief executives would rather their trade associations took a public stand on their behalf than face the risk of becoming personally targeted in the battle over abortion, he added.

However, the largest US business groups have remained silent. The chamber of commerce said it had no comment, while the Business Roundtable said it did not have a position on the issue.

While some advisers said companies were waiting to see the Supreme Court’s final ruling before commenting, a few responded with statements that emphasised practical ways they could help employees affected by state abortion bans, rather than taking a position on their merits.

Amalgamated Bank said it would cover plane fares and hotel expenses for employees and their dependants who needed to travel out of state to access reproductive healthcare. Amazon promised to pay up to $4,000 a year in travel expenses for medical treatments including abortions, Reuters reported.

Companies making such plans have experienced a backlash, however, with one legislator in Texas warning Citigroup that the state could prevent the bank from underwriting municipal bonds after it adopted a similar policy.

The bank’s stance also promoted a question at its annual meeting last month, accusing it of “a gross misuse of funds” to support something which many shareholders “find highly morally objectionable”.

The response from Jane Fraser, Citi’s chief, illustrated the issue’s sensitivities. “We know this is a subject that people feel passionate about. I want to be clear that this benefit isn’t intended to be a statement about a very sensitive issue,” she said.

Companies would now face more scrutiny of the abortion policies of individual states in which they had operations, BSR’s Gitman predicted. As new legislation was proposed to restrict access, some could choose to withhold investment or to locate employees elsewhere, she added.

Middlebury College’s Myers agreed: “There are plenty of people who . . . might end up wanting to move. It will be another way our country segregates itself.”

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