When the Supreme Court overturned 50 years of precedent to decimate abortion rights last summer, your first question probably wasn’t “what does Uber have to say about this?” And yet, after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision came down last June, Uber and Lyft were two of countless companies publicly responding with unequivocal disapproval. “This decision will hurt millions of women by taking away access to safe, and private reproductive healthcare services,” said Kristin Sverchek, Lyft’s president of business affairs. “After this morning’s Supreme Court ruling, we reiterated to employees that Uber’s insurance plans in the U.S. already cover a range of reproductive health benefits, including pregnancy termination and travel expenses to access healthcare,” Uber announced in a public statement.
This wasn’t the two rideshare companies’ first time responding to abortion restrictions. In September 2021, Uber and Lyft announced they would cover the legal fees of drivers sued under SB-8, the far-reaching Texas law that subjects anyone remotely involved in an abortion to citizen lawsuits. “The new TX law #SB8 is incompatible with people’s basic rights to privacy, our community guidelines, the spirit of rideshare, and our values as a company,” declared Lyft on Twitter. Their announcement made headlines and won them praise from abortion rights supporters. And yet, both companies are in years-long, well-publicized battles against their own employees, fighting to classify their drivers as “contractors” in order to deny them higher wages and benefits. Uber and Lyft have also made sizable donations to the anti-abortion Republican politicians responsible for passing the most restrictive state abortion laws.
These statements and prospective policies make for good PR, but they gloss over the uncomfortable truth: corporations made Dobbs happen. Like Uber and Lyft, many of these corporations regularly donate enormous amounts of money to the same political forces (read: Republican politicians) that pass abortion bans in state legislatures and put anti-abortion judges in power.
This is not the first time corporations have touted their support for progressive causes in this duplicitous way: for decades, environmental activists have been calling out companies for “greenwashing.” Greenwashing occurs when corporations use deceptive marketing and superficial policies to pretend to be environmentally responsible. Often, greenwashing works to obscure a company’s own contributions to climate change and environmental degradation. For corporations, greenwashing can be a win/win: they get favorable publicity from appearing socially conscious, but they don’t have to actually be socially conscious. Since corporations have discovered virtue signaling pays, seemingly “woke” marketing and policies have abounded in recent years, with companies capitalizing on a variety of social movements (See, for example, “bluewashing,” “pinkwashing,” another meaning of “pinkwashing,” and “movement capitalism.”)
Reproductive justice is apparently the next movement to be co-opted. Corporate “washing” of abortion rights has skyrocketed since the Dobbs decision came down this past summer. In an early effort to shine a light on this specific brand of “washing,” women’s rights advocacy group Ultraviolet started tracking and compiling a list of the biggest anti-abortion corporate donors. The campaign, entitled “ReproReceipts” shines a light on powerful companies like Comcast, Pfizer, and Altria Group (owner of Marlboro cigarettes), all of which donated upwards of $5 million to anti-abortion lawmakers in 2020. After Dobbs, Ultraviolet published a statement using their data to demonstrate that several major corporations’ donor records conflict with their pro-choice press statements. Ultraviolet labeled this disparity “reprowashing,” a term I will utilize for this article. Some activists have also used terms like “choicewashing,” “femwashing,” and “femvertising” to describe the phenomenon,.
How does reprowashing work?
After Dobbs, companies rushed to publish emotional statements forcefully condemning the decision. Additionally, dozens of well-known corporations promised to protect the abortion rights of their own employees, most commonly by offering to cover abortion-related travel under the company health insurance plan. These statements and prospective policies make for good PR, but they gloss over the uncomfortable truth: corporations made Dobbs happen. Like Uber and Lyft, many of these corporations regularly donate enormous amounts of money to the same political forces (read: Republican politicians) that pass abortion bans in state legislatures and put anti-abortion judges in power.
Additionally, there has been little indication thus far that employee abortion policies are anything more than empty words. The legality and workability of many of these policies remain uncertain due to significant legal complications. In states with restrictive abortion laws, corporations can expect lengthy lawsuits and staunch conservative opposition; a group of Texas lawmakers already announced their intention to bar corporations who pay for abortion travel from doing business in the state. Corporations would need to be willing to champion these policies despite the certainty of vicious legal battles and increasingly restrictive state abortion laws.
Band-aid corporate solutions make a poor substitute for the fundamental rights Roe v. Wade once safeguarded. The companies who contribute to the stripping away of reproductive freedom shouldn’t be able to reprowash the impact of their actions.
If corporations do successfully implement employee abortion funding policies, privacy concerns will certainly deter employees from using them. Even if they need the financial support, workers might be skeptical of confiding in the HR department about an abortion. HIPAA, the major medical privacy law, does not apply to employers who provide healthcare directly (rather than through an insurer.) More broadly, these policies are necessarily limited, and can only help those already on the company healthcare plan. That doesn’t mean corporations should retract their promises to reimburse abortion-related expenses. In a country without universal health care, over half of Americans rely on employer-provided health plans. If these plans can pass legal roadblocks and overcome confidentiality issues, they have the potential to provide crucial support for some workers. But it’s worth remembering that band-aid corporate solutions make a poor substitute for the fundamental rights Roe v. Wade once safeguarded. The companies who contribute to the stripping away of reproductive freedom shouldn’t be able to reprowash the impact of their actions.
To understand the insidiousness of reprowashing, we’ll look at some of the biggest offenders – some of the most notable corporate exploiters of abortion rights rhetoric and policies. They generate good publicity while masking their contributions to the destruction of reproductive rights.
Meta: You Can Have An Abortion, Just Don’t Talk About It
Meta, the social media company that controls Facebook and Instagram, is one of the many corporations vowing to protect their own employees’ access to abortion by offering out-of-state travel benefits. After the leaked version of the Dobbs opinion was published in May, Meta board member and former COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a Facebook statement that “the Supreme Court’s ruling jeopardizes the health and the lives of millions of girls and women across the country.” Once the official decision came down, a Meta spokesperson announced: “We intend to offer travel expense reimbursements, to the extent permitted by law, for employees who will need them to access out-of-state health care and reproductive services. We are in the process of assessing how best to do so given the legal complexities involved.”
Meanwhile, the company proceeded to instruct its workers not to discuss the leaked Dobbs ruling in an internal staff memo in May of last year. The memo informed staff that “discussing abortion openly at work has a heightened risk of creating a hostile work environment,” so they were taking “the position that we would not allow open discussion.” Meta implemented a stealthier form of this censorship on their platforms. On Instagram and Facebook, moderators were reportedly removing any posts advertising abortion pills to those who might not be able to access them after Dobbs. The Associated Press noted that similar posts where the word abortion was replaced with “guns” and “weed” were not removed, even though it is still legal to mail abortion pills in some circumstances (but not marijuana or many kinds of firearms). According to AP, the company “did not explain the apparent disparities in its enforcement of that policy.” Abortion rights activists have claimed that Meta’s censoring of abortion-related content has been going on for years.
There are also early indications that Facebook and Instagram will be key sources of evidence for prosecutors going after those seeking abortions –and anyone who tries to help them—in anti-abortion states. Already, Facebook messages were used by Nebraska cops this past August as part of an investigation into an illegal abortion. A mother assisted her 17-year-old daughter in getting an abortion; the two were charged in part based on their chat history. Facebook claimed they didn’t know the warrant was abortion-related when they turned over the information, but they have been notably silent when asked how they plan to respond to warrants going forward. Meta already has a poor track record of protecting their users’ privacy (most infamously, they allowed Russia to misuse the private data of millions of users to interfere with the 2020 election.)
Unlike many of the other companies discussed in this article, Meta donates exclusively to pro-choice politicians and groups. They seem poised to speak out for and protect the abortion access of their own, mostly high-earning, tech employees. Yet their reprowashing masks a willingness to censor abortion-related speech and hand over private abortion-related messages to prosecutors. This does not bode well for reproductive freedom.
AT&T: Playing Both Sides
AT&T, which in addition to its telecoms service owns HBO and Warner Bros., introduced a post-Dobbs policy for reimbursing their workers’ abortion-related travel. The reimbursement funds apply to any medical services that an employee is unable to access within 100 miles of their home. The company frequently flaunts its commitment to women’s rights; under the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” portion of their website, they tout their contributions to women-owned businesses and girls’ education, as well as their efforts to hire more female employees (currently 33.6% of the company).
AT&T and Pfizer were the only two companies that backed Republican politicians in all 13 states that implemented trigger laws. AT&T donated $1.2 million, more than any other company, and more than any anti-abortion advocacy organization.
Meanwhile, AT&T is known for donating consistently to anti-abortion politicians. When pressed on these donations, a company spokesperson told Business Insider that “While no contributions were made on the basis of an official’s position on abortion, our PACs over the last two decades have given more to state lawmakers advancing laws protecting abortion access than to those who voted to enact laws restricting abortion access.” However, in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2022, AT&T donated more to Republican politicians than Democrats, even donating to the campaigns of 30 election deniers. This past June, Business Insider tracked political donations to the 444 lawmakers and 13 governors who sponsored or co-sponsored abortion trigger laws (laws that automatically banned abortion statewide upon the passage of Dobbs). The data shows that AT&T and Pfizer were the only two companies that backed Republican politicians in all 13 states that implemented trigger laws. AT&T donated $1.2 million, more than any other company, and more than any anti-abortion advocacy organization.
After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United decision, which held that corporate political donations are considered free speech, corporations have been allowed to financially support lawmakers without limit. AT&T’s donor behavior is a paradigmatic example of how corporations use this unlimited opportunity to buy politicians to play both sides of the aisle. By simultaneously donating to Republican and Democratic lawmakers, AT&T ensures the continuous passage of policies that benefit the telecom company. Meanwhile, an AT&T spokesman can comfortably and accurately claim that they have supported pro-choice lawmakers while absolving themselves of their own role in propping up the other side. This form of reprowashing is an advertisement for why we need more campaign finance laws.