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Sept. 9, 2021, 8:35 a.m. EDT

‘They’ve been silent’: Many companies are on the sidelines about the new Texas abortion law — will they stay there?

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By Andrew Keshner

Texas’s new abortion law has touched off a wave of criticism, including from President Joe Biden , scathing dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s liberal wing and protests outside the Texas statehouse — but so far the reaction from most of corporate America has been muted, if that.

More than a year ago, George Floyd’s murder sparked widespread company denunciations against police brutality and an outpouring of money earmarked to address racial inequity.

Months ago, Georgia’s new voting limitations prompted corporate criticism , and even the relocation of baseball’s All-Star Game. In 2016, companies lined up to take a stand against the North Carolina law requiring people to use the public restroom matching their gender at birth.

Some big-name companies have weighed in on abortion laws recently. In 2019, Netflix /zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite NFLX +1.78% and Disney /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS -1.12% both said  they’d have to rethink filming and doing business  in Georgia if a certain abortion law went into effect. Like the Texas law, the Georgia statute prohibited abortions following a “detectable human heart beat.”

Last year, a federal judge  struck down the law.  Netflix and Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Texas law.

Now comes enactment of Senate Bill 8, or S.B. 8, a law that bans abortions in Texas at roughly the six-week mark and empowers private citizens to sue providers and people who “aid and abet” an abortion. That could even include anyone driving or accompanying a woman to a clinic. Critics, again including Biden, decry a provision that appears to encourage vigilantism.

Some opponents of the law say they’re still waiting to hear what companies think of S.B. 8 — which also happens to be taking effect in a large, business-friendly and low-tax state.

“Corporate America hasn’t really responded. They’ve been silent,” said Aimee Arrambide, executive director of Avow, an Austin-based advocacy group pressing to expand abortion access in the state.

See: Texas Republicans take hard right turn as Democrats see demographics shifting in their direction

To be sure, a handful of companies have made it clear where they stand.Lyft /zigman2/quotes/208999293/composite LYFT -2.52% CEO Logan Green announced Friday that the rideshare platform would completely cover legal costs for any driver sued under the law. The company also announced a $1 million donation to Planned Parenthood. “We encourage other companies to join us,” he said on Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -4.83% .

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, said in a tweet that Uber is “in” and that it, too, “will cover legal fees in the same way. Thanks for the push.”

The dating site Bumble, based in Austin, Texas, announced Thursday it was setting up a relief fund “supporting the reproductive rights of women and people across the gender spectrum who seek abortions in Texas.”

On Wednesday night, Shar Dubey, the CEO of Match Group /zigman2/quotes/207178501/composite MTCH -3.54% , sent a company memo saying she was setting up a fund to cover costs for out-of-state abortion. She noted she was speaking personally, and not on behalf of the Dallas-headquartered company.

They’ve been the exceptions.

For example, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +1.75% and SpaceX, said on Twitter that he “ would prefer to stay out of politics. ” Tesla has named Austin as the site of its next “ gigafactory ” location, and Musk has said he resides in a rental prefabricated home at the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica, Texas .

Oracle /zigman2/quotes/202180826/composite ORCL +2.02% , which moved its headquarters from Silicon Valley to Austin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did Dell Technologies, which is based in Round Rock, near Austin, nor other large companies with Texas headquarters including Exxon Mobil /zigman2/quotes/204455864/composite XOM +0.69% , AT&T /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T -1.05% and McKesson /zigman2/quotes/206975466/composite MCK +0.92% . American Airlines /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL -3.72% had no comment, according to a spokeswoman.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise /zigman2/quotes/201998588/composite HPE -0.84% announced late last year it was moving to Houston . “As a global company of 60,000 team members, HPE encourages our team members to engage in the political process where they live and work and make their voices heard through advocacy and at the voting booth,” a spokesman told MarketWatch, noting that the company’s headquarters remain in Houston.

For Arrambide, the overall silence goes deeper than companies avoiding hot-button issues. “There’s still so much stigma that they don’t want to talk about it. They shy away from it under the guise of it being too political,” Arrambide said.

For Jen Stark, however, the relative quiet might be a sign of companies thinking about strategy. “The silence so far doesn’t necessarily give me pause. Folks are in consideration,” said Stark, who is the senior director for corporate strategy at Tara Health Foundation and the former director of corporate relations at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Stark said she is talking with large, publicly traded companies right now that are figuring out what to say and what to do in reaction to the new Texas law. “It’s a really unique moment,” Stark said. “I think they are scrambling to catch up.”

That raises a larger question: Should companies weigh in on matters that might fall outside their immediate business goals and corporate missions? And do workers reasonably have the expectation that they’ll speak up? One recent survey of 3,000 employees by the consulting firm Gartner found that 75% “expect their employer to take a stance on current societal or cultural issues, even if those issues have nothing to do with their employer.”

James Copland, senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, doesn’t think so. Companies need to have the ability to speak out on laws and regulations that affect them and have every right to join trade groups and associations to further their interests — and the interests of their shareholders.

That’s where it should stop, he said.

“In general, corporations aren’t playthings for chief executives to play politics with shareholder money. … I think they shouldn’t be at the forefront of cultural wars,” Copland said. For the biggest of companies, “I think most executives and boards will want to stay out of this one.”

Stark noted that companies may be moved to speak against restrictive abortion laws when the matter is framed as a workforce issue.

Two-thirds of people say the new Texas law would discourage them from taking a job in the Lone Star State, according to an approximately 1,800-person poll commissioned by the Tara Health Foundation.

But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott doesn’t sound worried.

“The people who are not wringing their hands are the people who create jobs that run businesses,” he said during a CNBC interview on Thursday. Abbott noted that the financial incentives to come to Texas, such as the absence of a state income tax, remain.

Texas’s population has been swelling. As a result of the 2020 census count, Texas is bringing in two extra congressional seats. The state has 29.1 million people and an almost 16% population growth rate over the past 10 years, census data show.

For Arrambide, the state’s rising prominence and political significance would add extra force to company responses. “If businesses actually take a stand, that would be so powerful,” she said.

Read on: Most workers say companies should take action on racial injustice — but they haven’t heard the C-suite talk about the problem

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