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Investors push companies to make business case on abortion

Pressure on companies comes amid Supreme Court case and Trump’s actions to restrict abortion rights

Shareholder groups that have won corporate boardroom concessions on climate change and diversity are beginning to press corporations on women’s reproductive health issues, as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a case that could fundamentally alter abortion rights in the United States. 

A group of 36 investors managing $236 billion in assets sent a letter to CEOs of more than 30 companies asking them to discuss their positions related to sexual and reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by CQ Roll Call.

Shareholders involved with the effort have already filed five proxy proposals for 2020 annual meetings, including at Macy’s Inc. and Progressive Corp.

Campaign leaders and corporate governance experts, including a lawyer who reviewed shareholder proposals at the Securities and Exchange Commission, say they haven’t seen requests related to abortion since the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that protected a woman’s right to an abortion without excessive government interference. 

[Senate Republicans promote anti-abortion message]

In 2019, some Republican-leaning states passed new restrictions or bans on abortion in certain cases as some Democratic states established new protections.

The flurry of state activity came as the Trump administration sought to implement policies aimed at restricting access to abortions and as two Supreme Court justices nominated by President Donald Trump who oppose abortion rights were confirmed by the Senate and shifted the court to the right. Trump has said he would like to overturn Roe. 

The high court will hear oral arguments March 4 in June Medical Services v. Gee, a case that looks at whether Louisiana can require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. It’s the first abortion-related case since the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a swing vote on abortion. 

[Abortion policy activism heats up for Roe v. Wade anniversary]

“If Roe is either overturned directly or effectively, then companies and their employees will be faced with a situation where … the company may insure coverage of abortion but the employees will not necessarily have access to it unless they go out of state,” said Shelley Alpern, shareholder advocacy director at Rhia Ventures, an investment firm advocating corporate responsibility on reproductive health.

“Companies really are not yet thinking about the implications upon their employees and themselves of a post-Roe environment, and that’s why we prepared the business case,” she added.

Ensuring access to services

The letter organized by Rhia Ventures amasses almost six times more capital than a previous investor sign-on letter from Trillium Asset Management on reproductive health that didn’t address abortion by name. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who oversees the city’s $215.5 billion public pension funds, is among the signatories of the Rhia Ventures-led letter.

Trillium, a manager of $2.5 billion in assets that incorporates environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues into investments, focused on access to contraception in its initial efforts related to reproductive health care in 2015, shareholder advocate Allan Pearce said in an interview. That was under a different White House, he noted, and priorities shifted in 2017 when Trump became president.

At the center of the investor campaign is an argument that ensuring employees have access to reproductive health care services, including contraception and abortion, and receive parental benefits gives companies a competitive edge in recruiting talent, enhances diversity and inclusion efforts, and prevents obstacles that could decrease worker performance or career trajectory.

At a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., urged Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to include women in the workforce and access to child care as factors in contemplating monetary policy.

“Women in the workforce are actually a bigger driver of economic growth than technology companies,” Porter said. “In the span of four decades since the 1970s, 38 million women joined the workforce. Without those women, our economy would be 25 percent smaller.”

Rhia Ventures released a report this month that said 56 percent of women who attended college say they wouldn’t apply for a job in a state that had recently banned abortion, citing a survey of 1,377 employees by public opinion research firm PerryUndem.

The investor groups are asking Progressive and Macy’s to report by Dec. 1 on the risks and costs that could result from proposed or enacted state policies impacting reproductive rights, as well as any strategies they have developed to minimize or mitigate these risks, including through lobbying, according to text released by lead filer As You Sow, an ESG issue advocate. Spokesmen for both companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Alpern declined to give the names of the three other companies where investors submitted shareholder proposals or of the companies that received the letter, citing ongoing discussions.

Discussions with companies have been mixed, Alpern said. Investors have found that many companies provide health insurance coverage of abortion services for employees without exception, but coverage of contraception is varied. Companies also have a deeply entrenched belief that they’re neutral and not involved in political debates on abortion, investors say. 

Alpern said lobbying and political contributions that ultimately fund candidates or groups backing abortion restrictions do implicate companies.

Meanwhile, some companies have addressed abortion issues publicly. In June, 187 companies — including Bloomberg LP, founded by Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg — ran a New York Times ad saying restrictions on abortion and reproductive health care would be bad for business and corporate diversity efforts.

Risk to companies

Until now, abortion hasn’t been a topic of shareholder proposals. A text search of SEC filings found five proposals on proxy ballots in the past four years that mentioned abortion directly, all questioning charitable contributions to Planned Parenthood.

Lawmakers and not corporate boards should be addressing social concerns such as abortion rights, said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance.

Proposals related to current political debates such as gun policies at manufacturers or the opioid crisis at drug companies have won backing from shareholders because they relate to a company’s primary business, he said, adding that requests related to abortion would not.

“No matter what the company does, a good chunk of the shareholders are going to object,” Elson said. “That’s why the company shouldn’t be doing it — or [should be] staying out of it.”

Investors involved with the latest letter and shareholder proposals compare their effort to campaigns in the 1990s to get companies to put in place protections for LGBT employees, which ultimately aligned with greater acceptance of the LGBT community in the U.S.

Pearce said neutrality is no longer an option for companies.

“They risk losing one way or another — you’re going to risk losing customers, you’re going to risk losing employees,” Trillium’s Pearce said. “So it’s kind of like companies almost have to take a stance, and just trying to be neutral is something that you can’t really do.”

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