Pressure Mounts for Companies to Stand Against Texas’s Near-Total Abortion Ban: “Time to Get on Board,” Says Cecile Richards

“March, register to vote, vote, get other folks to vote, and support companies that are standing for reproductive rights. Then call the rest of them and tell them: It’s time to get on board.”

—Cecile Richards, co-chair of American Bridge PAC and former president of Planned Parenthood

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Cecile Richards at a Stand With Texas Women rally in July 2013. (David Weaver / Do 512 via Flickr)

Texas’s S.B. 8. has laid bare the precarious nature of abortion rights, prompting public outrage and fear, especially among women and abortion providers. Between this unprecedented near-total abortion ban, in place in Texas for a month; Supreme Court inaction despite the law’s blatant unconstitutionality; and the looming 15-week abortion ban case that will decide the future of Roe v. Wade—the U.S. is at a tipping point when it comes to abortion. 

Even still, it’s hard not to notice a relative silence from corporate America, where most companies have opted to stay out of the abortion debate in public, despite public outcry against the law

This silence is particularly notable given the Texas business boom happening over the last three years: 29 companies moved their headquarters to Texas in 2019; 31 in 2020; and already, 21 have made the move in 2021, according to a report from the Dallas Morning News. Even still, some predict a brain drain from Texas as a result of the state’s unprecedented ban: Two-thirds of college-educated respondents to a recent PerryUndem poll said Senate Bill 8 would discourage them from working in the state. But while the law originated in Texas, several states are eyeing copycat bans, and experts anticipate more to follow.

Cecile Ricards, former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 2006 to 2018 and daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, calls this silence “unthinkable.” 

“This was the moment for corporations, businesses and employers, to stand up on behalf off the people that they employ, the people that they sell products to, and the places where they do business, on an issue like abortion rights, which has been a constitutional right in this country for [nearly] 50 years,” Richards told Ms. “Now in one state, Texas, essentially, that constitutional right effectively no longer exists.”

To make sure companies “feel the pressure and the heat,” American Bridge PAC, of which Richards is the co-chair, recently launched an initiative called #OffTheBANWagon. It aims to shine a light on corporations that publicly advocate for women’s rights and empowerment, while supporting the campaigns of the Texas state legislators who sponsored S.B. 8.

“It’s incredibly important that people know which businesses have been providing financial support to the folks who just took away the right to legal abortion in Texas,” said Richards. “It is extremely distressing to see the effective silence of corporate America at a time in which there’s no way to be on the sidelines. You’re either going to support people and this fight for safe and legal abortion in this country, or you’re on the other side.”

While the campaign aims to put pressure on several companies, one is singled out in particular: AT&T. The company has spent almost $700k financing the campaigns of the primary sponsors of S.B. 8 in Texas. It also gave funds to the lawmakers responsible for a similar law passed in Mississippi, on the docket to be heard by the Supreme Court in December—all while claiming “one of the company’s ‘core values’ is ‘gender equity and the empowerment of women.” 

There are exceptions to the relative silence from the business community: Last week, 52 companies went public with a letter titled “Don’t Ban Equality,” which argues that abortion restrictions are bad for business—marking the largest outcry yet from the business sector against the controversial bill. Signed by Lyft, Glossier, Yelp, Stitch Fix, Bumble (an Austin-based company), Ben & Jerry’s and others, the letter critiques the economic impacts of Texas’s abortion restrictions, both within the state and across the country. The letter had 81 signatories as of Thursday morning. 

Richards struck a bittersweet tone in response. “It’s certainly not enough, but it’s so welcome, and I was excited to see that it had happened. I hope it encourages other people to take a stand and to join in businesses that signed on. … There are, obviously, way more businesses that are not on it than businesses that are.”

In the past, in the face of unpopular and controversial bills—such as an anti-trans bathroom bill out of North Carolina in 2016 or this year’s voter identification laws in Georgia—companies have been keen to express their dissent publicly. CEOs have even been known to get directly involved, as in the case when then-Governor Mike Pence secured a repeal of an anti-LGBTQ law in Indiana after hearing from powerful CEOs with offices in the state, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter and Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, who said the law would hurt the companies’ abilities to recruit top talent.

For now, though, Texans have this letter—a redux of a 2019 one with the same name, part of a coordinated effort against a slew of anti-abortion legislation that cropped up that year. (Though, notably, 2021 is now the year with the most abortion restrictions enacted since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.)

Richards stressed the importance of supporting the companies who come out publicly against S.B. 8 and other states eyeing similar bans. 

“It’s important that those that did sign on hear from consumers,” she said. “There’s nothing worse than having a business take a stand, then deafening silence. It’s really important … these businesses that have stood up and put their name on the line hear from people who appreciate that—because, I can tell you, they are definitely hearing from the people who don’t appreciate what they did.”

She also lays blame on the lawmakers behind the bill, introduced by Senator Bryan Hughes and co-sponsored by Senators Paul Bettencourt, Donna Campbell and Brian Birdwell, and eventually signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this spring. The final vote was 19 to 12, a largely party line vote, with the exception of Democrat Eddie Lucio who joined the rest of the Republicans in voting yes. 

“Republicans in the state of Texas feel that they’re not going to pay a price for putting their own political ideology and ambitions ahead of the well-being of the people of Texas,” Richards said. “The pain and suffering and misery that is now being meted out on women, on their families, on pregnant people in the state, has to be laid at the feet of the people who passed these bills.”

Republicans in Texas—the state ranked the ninth worst in access to healthcare, quality of care, service use and costs of care, health outcomes, and income-based health care disparities—defend the bill as “pro-life.” 

Richards took offense to this label. “These are the same politicians that routinely vote against school lunch programs. They vote against expanding Medicaid. They vote to defund Planned Parenthood. They don’t care about the people in Texas. They just care about their own political future.” 

Clearly, the 2021 iteration of the Texas legislature—mostly white, male, middle-aged—does not reflect the growing diversity of the state.

  • Almost 80 percent of the Texas legislature are men, while making up only half of the state’s population. 
  • White lawmakers make up almost two-thirds of the legislature, but only 43 percent of the state population.
  • Only five of the 115 Republicans in the legislature are people of color, and zero Republicans of color hold seats in the Texas Senate, where S.B. 8 originated. 

“The thing that is so sickening to me about this cruel and unconstitutional law is most of the folks who passed it are never going to get pregnant,” said Richards. “That’s never going to be an issue in their lives.”’

Democrats hope the public outcry against the law will translate into fervor for the 2022 midterms. While the state has long been a Republican stronghold, the 2020 elections saw the closest presidential results in the state in 44 years.

“We’re looking for ways to both shine a light on the atrocity which is this law in Texas—to not only hold corporations accountable, but to hold politicians accountable,” said Richards, “because, ultimately, this is a political battle, and people are going to have to choose sides.”

Of course, Texans seeking an abortion can’t wait until next year for abortion access to be restored. But the day after Texas’s new abortion law went into effect, the Women’s March announced its return to Washington and across the nation on Saturday, Oct. 2 to rally in support of reproductive rights. (Find or host a march here.) 

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The Women’s March in New York in 2017. (Pixabay / Creative Commons)

Richards hopes the turnout of Saturday’s nationwide Women’s March will send two messages to business leaders and public officials.

The first: “that elections matter.” 

The second hearkens to the upcoming 15-week abortion ban in front of the Supreme Court—Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—scheduled for oral arguments in front of the Court on Dec. 1. “The whole world is watching. The Supreme Court is watching. … They have to know that they cannot vote or refuse to vote and take away reproductive access in this country without a backlash, and so we need to see folks in the street, and not just Saturday—every day.”

Richards said she also hopes the nationwide response will send a message to the people of Texas: “They aren’t alone. … People around the country are standing in solidarity and support with them—and that includes employers and businesses.”

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Richards was urgent about the need for country-wide activism at this moment. Businesses deserve pressure, of course, but that doesn’t mean average people can let up: “We see change happen because people demand it. None of our rights were given to us. They were fought for.” 

This fight reverberates far behind Texas state lines. 

“People may think, ‘Oh my gosh, Texas, that’s some place far away,’—but this is coming to a theater near you. All you need is a Republican governor and a republican legislature, and you could be in the exact same shape,” Richards said.

She pointed out that during last week’s historic House passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade into law, “not a single Republican member of Congress voted for that. Not a single one.” 

Her point? “This is not just a bunch of rogue folks down in Texas. This is the Republican Party platform … and they’re not going to stop with that state.

Her advice for people who want to channel their outrage: “March, register to vote, vote, get other folks to vote, and support companies that are standing for reproductive rights. Then call the rest of them and tell them: It’s time to get on board.”

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About

Roxy Szal is the digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast "On the Issues With Michele Goodwin." Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.