Members of our Sustainability team discuss the likely repercussions of reproductive rights restrictions.
On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade precedent that had, for some five decades, guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy. This bombshell decision, highly anticipated following the leak of a draft opinion in May, handed states the power to restrict abortion as they see fit. A number of states, expecting this outcome, had already introduced highly restrictive “trigger laws” designed to take effect upon Roe’s reversal.
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that access to safe and legal abortion, despite being codified by various international treaties as a fundamental human right, remains a highly contentious and politicized issue here in America. But while the debate around abortion is often framed in simplistic moral terms, Americans’ views on the matter are far more nuanced and complex. In a recent Pew Research study, the majority of respondents indicated that they support legal abortions in all or most cases. Even among the 37 percent expressing that abortion should be outlawed in “most” or “all” cases, more than a third conceded that it should be permissible in certain instances. Unfortunately, this nuance is lost in various states’ lawmaking efforts, several of which offer no exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
Whatever your individual take on the issue, the truth holds that there are various reasons—many of them highly personal and painful—that a person might seek access to an abortion. And, with one in five pregnancies in the United States ending in a termination as of 2020, there’s a strong chance you know and love one of those people.
A lot of people have questions about the wider effects of limiting reproductive rights and what they can do to demonstrate solidarity with those most affected. These are items that Ethic’s sustainability team have been contemplating in some detail. Our director of sustainability data & insights, Kellen Parker, and sustainability research associate Sophie Griffith, sat down to answer some commonly asked questions:
How would denying access to abortion impact a woman’s health and financial wellbeing?
Sophie: The evidence suggests that the health risks of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term are far greater than those associated with a safe, legal abortion. Various studies have identified a link between carrying certain types of complicated pregnancies to term and increased mortality rates. This is the case even when those denied abortion access do not resort to unsafe procedures—they may be forced to continue high-risk pregnancies that gravely threaten their health or might feel compelled to remain in unsafe domestic situations. In addition, people denied abortions are more likely to experience chronic headaches or migraines, joint pain, and gestational hypertension.
Being refused an abortion can also yield negative economic impacts for pregnant people and their families. The landmark, longitudinal Turnaway Study—which followed the experiences of almost 1,000 women* who had received or been denied abortions—found that years later, those who were turned away were more likely to have insufficient funds to cover basic household expenses such as food and housing. For several years after denial of an abortion, these study participants also experienced lower credit scores, elevated debt, and lesser financial security relative to those that were granted access to a safe termination. These findings have since been strengthened by other studies, which suggest access to legal abortion can have positive downstream effects on women’s lives and those of their children. For example, women able to delay childbirth until they felt more emotionally and economically prepared have benefited from increased educational attainment, higher earnings later in life, and stronger relationships with their children.
Some states have already moved to criminalize abortion. What are the downstream effects of this?
Sophie: Efforts to criminalize abortion could drive people—especially those that lack the financial means to take time off work, find childcare, and travel to a state where abortions are legal— to end their own pregnancies using medications purchased online. This fraught decision is compounded by the reality that motivated prosecutors may (and already do) leverage a variety of laws to punish these individuals and those that help them. Worse, some state laws financially incentivize residents to sue anyone suspected of helping a pregnant person access an abortion.
Study after study has shown that involvement with the criminal justice system, even if only for a minor infraction or misdemeanor charge, can have lasting negative impacts on an individual’s economic stability. The “collateral consequences” of a criminal record include barriers to employment, occupational licensing, housing, and more. These effects may be more pronounced among Black people, who represent the majority of abortion seekers in the United States, already experience racial discrimination in the U.S. labor market, and are often subject to more punitive treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system.
The potential criminalization of abortion also has implications for abortion providers’ and recipients’ participation in the democratic process. Case in point: earlier this year, the state of Oklahoma signed into law an anti-abortion bill that makes it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to perform an abortion. At the same time, people convicted of a felony in Oklahoma cannot register to vote until they have completed their original sentence, including probation and parole. This could see everyday citizens disenfranchised and unable to exercise their voting rights for extended periods.
Who else is likely to experience negative impacts as a result of limited access to safe, legal abortions?
Kellen: This is something we can’t emphasize enough: this is an issue that affects all of us. We’ve touched briefly on how this stands to impact the physical and financial wellbeing of pregnant people and their children. But it’s so much more than that. Among other things:
It’s a Racial Justice issue. In the United States, Black and Hispanic women have disproportionately high rates of unplanned pregnancy, in part due to more restricted access to reproductive health care and contraceptives. Further, Black people who get pregnant tend to experience worse health outcomes, such as higher maternal and infant mortality rates.
It’s an LGBTQ+ Justice issue. It’s not just cisgender women that require reproductive health care as part of their overall health care coverage—LGBTQ+ people also need these services but often face greater barriers to access than the general population. Additionally, one study suggested that lesbian or bisexual women are more likely than others to report victimization, including sexual assault, that makes them particularly vulnerable to unintended pregnancies.
It’s an Immigration Justice issue. Refugees and internationally displaced women are exposed to high levels of sexual violence, yet frequently have reduced access to medical services (including reproductive health care). Barriers to vital care may include policies at the state and federal level, as well as individuals’ limited English proficiency, fear of deportation, and history of negative or discriminatory treatment at the hands of the health care system.
Limiting access to reproductive health care could also have profound implications for the broader economy, hampering women’s workforce participation, educational attainment, and earnings. These impacts notwithstanding, it’s pretty hard to contend that the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes is the most effective and appropriate use of public funds.
What are some of the data privacy concerns associated with the overturning of Roe v. Wade?
Sophie: Roe v. Wade set a legal precedent for privacy from due process that is now under threat.
The enormous quantity of private data stored by apps—everything from physical location to search history, financial transactions and period cycle tracking—could make it easy for analysts to determine whether someone is pregnant. Law enforcement agencies frequently access private companies’ data via an array of means that include warrants, subpoenas, and even voluntary purchases. Worryingly, then, law enforcement in states where abortion is illegal may be able to access technology companies’ stored information to collect and compile evidence against individuals who choose to terminate a pregnancy.
How can companies position themselves to support current employees and attract top talent concerned about dwindling access to reproductive health care?
Sophie: A number of major companies have responded to recent anti-abortion legislation by pledging to provide employees with travel and relocation benefits that enable them to receive out-of-state reproductive care. It is too soon to measure the effectiveness of these measures in supporting those most impacted by restrictive laws (i.e., low-income communities and people of color). Nonetheless, it’s likely that such benefits will be key to retaining top talent: in one survey, approximately half of college-educated workers indicated they would consider relocating out of state if their home state were to ban abortions. A significant majority of these workers—almost seven in 10—posit that access to reproductive health care, including abortion, should be provided by companies as part of their workplace efforts to foster gender equity.
Critically, robust travel and relocation benefits should not require employees to disclose the reason for using the benefit in writing or verbally at any point during the process, or provide any documentation (i.e., receipts) of expenses incurred. We believe strongly that health care decisions should remain private, both to protect the employee and to protect the company from legal exposure.
Aside from travel benefits, some companies have offered legal fee support to employees, and/or created funds to increase access to out-of-state abortions to the general public in affected states. Numerous other company actions can improve reproductive care coverage for employees, such as vetting insurance packages for reproductive care coverage, flexible work schedules, and paid time off that doesn’t distinguish between sick and vacation days.
How can companies use their sway to make a difference and affect policy?
Kellen: Corporations in America have long talked out of both sides of their mouths, publicly espousing their commitments to issues such as women’s rights and racial justice while simultaneously donating millions to anti-abortion politicians and the committees that back them. It’s time for these companies to practice what they preach and use their formidable influence to promote reproductive rights as human rights. This involves speaking out in vocal and unequivocal terms, reevaluating their political contributions, and reconsidering expansions or operations in states that have implemented (or are looking to implement) anti-abortion laws.
We’re also hopeful that technology companies will reevaluate their data collection practices, taking stock of how certain information might be appropriated in ways that are harmful to users—and thus whether its harvesting is truly necessary in the first place. In addition, companies might wish to consider revisiting internal policies to ensure that, where appropriate, users receive early notification of any government requests for their data.
Where the public sector has failed, it’s possible that private investors will step up on this issue and seek to divest from companies that have funded anti-abortion politicians or taken inadequate action to defend reproductive rights. We expect that next year’s proxy season will see shareholders expressing great interest in how companies are supporting employees’ access to reproductive health care and/or aligning political spending with public stances on social issues. Corporate leadership may find themselves forced to respond to a wave of proposals that ask them to evaluate the tangible business risks of their policies (or lack thereof) and political donations.
What can I, as an individual, do to support reproductive rights?
There are a number of reputable non-profit organizations currently working to support women and other people who can become pregnant; we’ve recommended a few of these below. In selecting potential recipients of aid, we considered the areas with greatest potential for impact, and sought to recommend lesser-known organizations over prominent entities (such as Planned Parenthood) that are more likely to have diversified and stable sources of funding.
- National Network of Abortion Funds. This organization brings together reproductive rights groups around the country to pool resources. You can search for a local abortion clinic or organization in their network that serves a location or population of personal importance to you.
- If/When/How. This organization provides legal services related to reproductive rights access. It provides training to lawyers and law students to prepare them for reproductive care-related legal cases, advocates for legal reforms to decriminalize self-managed abortion, and provides funding to support defendants in abortion-related lawsuits.
- Brigid Alliance. This national referral-based organization provides abortion-seekers with access to travel, food, lodging, childcare and other logistical support. Logistical support for low-income abortion-seekers will become more pressing in a post-Roe world.
- Mariposa Fund. This organization, based in New Mexico (a Texas-adjacent state with strong protections for reproductive care), focuses on resources and support for undocumented people seeking abortions. Undocumented people face unique obstacles to accessing reproductive healthcare, and the Mariposa Fund works with individuals as well as training clinics to provide better support to the undocumented community.
We look forward to sharing more information about this important topic, as well as ways that you and your clients can take action, in due course. In the meantime, if you have further questions, please feel free to reach out via email@example.com.
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* Ethic acknowledges that, in addition to women, some nonbinary, trans, and intersex people can also become pregnant and bear children; however, because the vast majority of research into the negative impacts of restricting reproductive rights focuses on populations of women, we use that term to accurately reflect the empirical claims in our cited sources.
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