Big Georgia companies keep mum after divisive abortion ruling

Abortion rights protesters rally near the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on May 14, 2022. A federal appeals court on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, overturned a lower court ruling and said Georgia’s restrictive 2019 abortion law should be allowed to take effect. The Georgia law bans most abortions once a “detectable human heartbeat” is present. (Ben Gray /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

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Abortion rights protesters rally near the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on May 14, 2022. A federal appeals court on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, overturned a lower court ruling and said Georgia’s restrictive 2019 abortion law should be allowed to take effect. The Georgia law bans most abortions once a “detectable human heartbeat” is present. (Ben Gray /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

Georgia’s largest companies with headquarters here have waded into public debates in recent years over highly charged issues ranging from voting rights and immigration to guns and gay rights.

But most have stayed mum since a federal court last week upheld Georgia’s restrictive new abortion law, also avoiding commenting publicly if they will help employees seeking abortions in another state.

The silence suggests Georgia-based companies — like many big U.S. employers across much of the country — fear being drawn into the divisive debate over abortion rights and angering some of their customers or politicians. Legal questions surrounding out-of-state abortions are likely another factor.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contacted Georgia’s Fortune 500 companies for comment after the U.S. Supreme Court ended constitutional protections for abortion in June. It contacted them again last week, after a federal court upheld Georgia’s law that prohibits most abortions after a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity.

Of the 19 Georgia-based employers in the Fortune 500 list of largest publicly traded U.S. companies, 18 did not comment, including such household names as Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS and Delta Air Lines.

The one company that did comment, Sandy Springs-based packaging company Veritiv, said it is reviewing its health care policies.

“Veritiv is committed to ensuring access to quality reproductive healthcare for our employees nationwide, including in Georgia,” and the company is looking into “available options,” Dean Adelman, Veritiv’s chief human resources officer, said in a written statement.

Georgia’s abortion law is among the strictest in the U.S., banning most abortions about six weeks into pregnancies, before many women know they are pregnant. Exceptions include rape, incest, if the woman’s life is threatened, or if the fetus would not be able to survive.

Some big U.S. companies — including Amazon, Starbucks, Salesforce and Levi Strauss — promised new policies to expand employees’ access to abortion after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion in May signaled a majority of the court was prepared to end constitutional protections.

Entertainment giants with major Georgia operations — including Comcast, Disney, Meta, Netflix and CNN-owner Warner Bros. Discovery — announced changes to their health plans in the wake of the June 24 Supreme Court ruling that left abortion regulations in the hands of the states. Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger, one of the largest grocers in Georgia, made similar announcements to expand employees’ access to abortions.

Still, the vast majority of companies in Georgia and elsewhere have remained mum. A survey by The Conference Board following the Supreme Court decision found that only 10% of U.S. corporations had responded or planned to respond with public statements — even though 61% have taken a public stance on racial equality.

Abortion is more divisive and difficult to find common ground on, said Paul Washington, executive director of The Conference Board’s ESG Center. There’s also less of a direct role that companies can seize, in contrast to racial and gender equality, which they can address through hiring or procurement, he added.

“There isn’t a single right answer for companies to take a stand or not,” Washington said. “In some cases it may backfire to take a public stance. It may be more powerful to place a call to the governor.”

While most Americans support abortion rights, about 37% of U.S. adults think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a Pew survey.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, umbrella groups for businesses, did not comment.

Emily Dickens, head of government affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management, said the organization’s research shows nearly a quarter of U.S. businesses think they can better compete for workers by offering a health savings account to cover travel for reproductive care in another state.

“But how these policies interact with state laws is unclear, and employers should be aware of the legal risks involved,” Dickens added.

At the same time, said The Conference Board’s Washington, “pressure to address these and other social issues is unlikely to abate.”

Last year, Coke and Delta’s chief executives criticized Georgia’s divisive new voting law after consumers threatened to boycott their companies for having largely stuck to the sidelines. After they spoke out, both companies faced backlash from customers and Republican lawmakers who supported the law.

When something “runs counter to the values of the company and what you espouse ... sometimes you feel compelled to voice your view,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian during a Harvard Business Review interview published earlier this year. But, he added, “I think you have to be very careful and very cautious.”

ExploreGeorgia’s corporate landscape: business incentives, political fights

It’s unclear how Georgia’s law will affect business recruiting efforts. Pat Wilson, who heads the state’s Department of Economic Development, downplayed any impact last month, citing Georgia’s “business-friendly environment.”

Judith A. Miller, an Emory University associate professor of history, thinks Georgia’s new law could hurt recruiting of students and employees to the state.

“I am hearing from female students who do not want to return to the state of Georgia,” Miller said.

Before the abortion ruling, Georgia landed the two largest economic development projects in its history, securing electric vehicle plants from Hyundai Motor Group and Rivian that combined promise to employ more than 15,000 people.

Hyundai said its U.S. unit will provide up to $4,000 in travel reimbursement for those covered by its medical plan who need to travel more than 100 miles to seek in-network abortion services, and that it is working to expand the travel allowance for other medical services.

Rivian said it would expand its health plans to provide workers abortion access out of state and provide employees up to $5,000 for travel expenses.

“While we recognize there are differences in opinion on this topic, at Rivian, we believe a person’s right to choose, when it comes to their body and reproductive health, is a fundamental human right,” Rivian said in a statement.

Cox Enterprises, owner of the AJC, owns about a 4% stake in Rivian and supplies services to the company. Cox is one of the largest companies in Georgia but not part of the Fortune 500 because it is privately held. Cox Enterprises did not comment.

Many companies shy about taking a public position have written checks to elected officials who have worked to restrict abortion rights. AT&T gave the most to anti-abortion politicians in Georgia, $166,000 in 2020, according to UltraViolet, an abortion rights group that tracked political contributions.

Among Georgia-based companies, Southern Company ranked first, contributing $148,472. Other leading corporate contributors included Coke, Home Depot and UPS, according to UltraViolet.

--Zachary Hansen and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.