Abortion rights are on the corporate ballot for the first time since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, and several activist investors are banding together to make sure companies pay attention.
Investors from the Educational Foundation of America, the Tara Health Foundation, Arjuna Capital and more have coordinated to file over 30 shareholder proposals at companies including Walt Disney Co., Meta Platforms Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. following the Supreme Court’s decision last summer in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The proposals are varied: Some point to the workforce risks of abortion restrictions, while others emphasize the importance of companies protecting abortion-related data, and still others question if companies give money to politicians who favor restricting abortion access.
But they also give the investors the opportunity to speak to companies directly about everything from healthcare coverage to maternity leave. The general theme: Shareholders want companies to do a better job disclosing how the abortion restrictions cropping up across the country will affect their employees and business, pointing in particular to research that women who aren’t able to access abortions are more likely to leave their jobs.
“Whether they want to or not, companies are directly involved in the health of their employees,” said David Stocks, executive director at the Educational Foundation of America, which has filed proposals at Disney, UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Lowe’s Cos Inc.
If the proposals make it to annual shareholder meetings, other investors will be able to cast votes in the spring and summer. The efforts this year more than double the number of similar proposals that the shareholders filed in the 2022 proxy season, eleven of which went to a vote. Those proposals secured over 30% backing from investors last year—and that was before Roe was overturned, signaling the potential for future bids to pass.
“I don’t think I ever expected it to be easy,” said Dr. Ruth Shaber, a former OB/GYN who founded the Tara Health Foundation and has filed abortion-related proposals at companies including Home Depot Inc. and Paypal Holdings Inc. “When we got into this work I was prepared for much less support than we’re getting.”
“Not Going Away”
The investors, who have been coordinating with help from non-profit organization Rhia Ventures, say their conversations with the targets of their proposals have so far yielded mixed responses.
“Some companies are really interested to hear about our concerns and are starting to take steps internally, and other companies have their head in the sand and don’t think this is an issue that’s going to affect their workforce,” said Natasha Lamb, managing partner at Arjuna Capital, which has filed proposals at several companies including UPS, CVS Health Corp. and Alphabet Inc.
Arjuna Capital’s proposal at Costco Wholesale Corp., which asked for a public report detailing the risks abortion restrictions hold for the company, secured less than 15% of support from investors last month—one of the first abortion-related proposals to face a vote at an annual meeting this year.
“It’s a new kind of proposal, and so in the first year I wouldn’t expect all of these to get close to a majority,” said Lamb. “But it really sends a signal that this is something you need to pay attention to. It’s not going away.”
Costco board chair Tony James told shareholders at the meeting that “imposing special reporting obligations on the company is not necessary and would be a significant added expense.” He said he recognized that “the topic of reproductive rights can be divisive.”
Some employees have said corporate action on abortion rights matters to them, according to research commissioned by the Tara Health Foundation and BSR. The March 2022 study, for which business intelligence company Morning Consult polled over 2,000 people, found that 58% of respondents said they believed companies should oppose legislation that limits abortion access.
The shareholders reference research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimating that state-level abortion restrictions may keep more than 500,000 women aged 15 to 44 out of the workforce every year.
Ensuring privacy for employees or consumers who want to get abortions is also a concern for investors.
Tech companies and financial institutions are facing queries about collecting sensitive personal information such as geolocation data, browsing history and financial activity, that could be used in abortion prosecutions.
For example, a proposal at Alphabet questioned Google’s location search queries and history, pointing out that the web search company had pledged to protect abortion-related information. “Law enforcement may access this consumer data via keyword or geofence warrants,” the proposal says, noting that hundreds of Google employees signed a petition asking the company to protect users’ abortion-connected location data. Google will delete users’ location information soon after they’ve visited abortion clinics, it said in July.
Another proposal pointed out that Meta satisfied a Nebraska police warrant demanding access to private Facebook messages from a mother who ultimately faced felony charges for having allegedly helped her daughter to get an illegal abortion. Meta says on its website that that the warrants did not mention abortion at all.
“To protect consumers and the company’s reputation, Meta would need to decrease the potentially personal sensitive information it collects and retains from users,” the proposal said.
Meta is expanding default end-to-end encryption for Facebook Messenger. The company said it knows “people want a space to connect and they want to know that those conversations are private, safe and secure.” On a website about how Meta works with law enforcement, the company said: “We scrutinize every government request we receive to make sure it’s legally valid. When we comply, we produce narrowly tailored information to respond to that request.”
Coporate political spending is also under the microscope this proxy season. Disney, for example, is facing a proposal from the Educational Foundation of America arguing that the company’s public support for the LGBTQ community and women’s advancement inside the company doesn’t line up with its political spending.
“It’s really about transparency and where money is going,” Lamb, the Arjuna Capital co-managing director, said. “They’re spending investors’ money on politicians, so we have the right to know where that money is going.”
Awareness around political spending ballooned following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots; dozens of companies pledged to pause contributions to politicians who objected to certifying the 2020 presidential election results. Last year, companies including AT&T Inc. received proposals targeting political spending for politicians and organizations that are hindering access to abortion. The AT&T proposal almost passed, receiving 44% of votes on the corporate ballot.
AT&T told investors in its proxy statement before the vote that it might support some officials because they “broadly and importantly contribute to our core businesses and values,” even if the company doesn’t agree with every position the official takes.
When dealing with any abortion-related proposal, companies may not want to “shout out loud” about their policies, said Laura Gitman, chief operating officer at sustainability consultancy BSR. Businesses often prefer to address abortion-related questions before an annual meeting—especially when drawing attention to the topic could lead to backlash from those who oppose companies making environmental, social and governance considerations, she said.
Companies across industries are taking notice of the proposals, Gitman said, even those that aren’t currently being targeted. A swathe of businesses is paying attention to the level of support the proposals are getting, she said, and are thinking through how they might preempt or respond to such requests.
“The objective isn’t necessarily to get them to pass, but really to create that dialogue,” she said.
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