Published October 3, 2022
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, dozens of major American companies have announced plans to refund travel costs for female employees who seek an abortion out of state if local laws regulating abortion would make it unavailable to them. “Protection of reproductive rights is a critical business issue impacting our work force, our economy and progress toward gender and racial equity,” said clothing company Levi Strauss in a statement. A representative of Reddit explained the policy this way: “Our benefits programs are designed to support the health and safety of our employees, and we also have robust policies to support women in the workplace.”
What are we to make of this campaign, coming not just from one or two progressive corporations but from companies representing virtually every major industry? One way to understand it is as an exercise in virtue-signaling for the sake of improving a company’s brand. Much of our society has embraced legal abortion as an unshakable plank of modern feminism. What better way to attract female employees and showcase progressive bona fides than by promising to help women access abortion when it becomes harder to do so?
But there’s another, far more sinister understanding of this corporate campaign, and to understand it, we must dig to the roots of the feminist argument for abortion.
For decades, pro-abortion feminists have argued that, without abortion, women cannot control their bodies or their futures and therefore cannot live as autonomous human beings with a status equal to men’s. This argument is grounded in the belief that pregnancy, childbearing, and motherhood impose unfair costs on women, costs for which we must compensate, first with readily accessible contraception and, when contraception fails, with abortion. Without abortion to relieve women of the disproportionate burden of pregnancy, the facts of female biology place them on unequal footing with men, whose biology enables them to have sex and walk away with no consequences.
This argument for abortion acknowledges certain important truths. Reproduction is a natural outcome of sex and only women can become pregnant; therefore, both sex and pregnancy pose unique consequences for women. It’s a concept that legal scholar Erika Bachiochi calls “reproductive asymmetry,” the way in which human embodiment places women in a role of particular responsibility to the unborn child. No one but a child’s mother can sustain her in the womb; no one but a child’s mother can give birth to him.
But the feminist conclusion — that we must disconnect pregnancy from sex, using the lethal violence of abortion if necessary — gets the solution exactly backwards. Abortion attempts to erase the burden of pregnancy by erasing children, and it attempts to make women equal to men by pretending that women are men.
The idea that abortion eliminates reproductive asymmetry stems from the thought of second-wave feminists, who, unlike the feminists of the early 20th century, rejected the notion of parental responsibility to the unborn child and convinced a generation of women that their very bodies were working against them. As Abigail Favale notes in her new book The Genesis of Gender, influential second-wave theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone cast femaleness and female biology as decidedly undesirable compared with the unencumbered male standard: “Too often, freedom for women is cast as freedom from femaleness. ‘Autonomy’ is envisioned according to male parameters, and women are expected to use invasive chemical and surgical means to conform their bodies to that ideal.”
In other words, feminists began to embrace abortion only after they began to take the male body as the ideal and maleness as the pinnacle of the human experience. As a result, they redefined female equality as sameness with men, adopting the view that women could not be equal unless they could participate in the economy, in sex — indeed, in life — in the same way that men do. The chief obstacle to this vision of fulfillment? The female body.
It is in this framework that abortion becomes necessary, the ultimate backstop against the reality that sex naturally leads to women becoming pregnant, a reality made particularly difficult in a society shorn of the bulwark of marriage and permissive towards male abandonment. But rather than actually resolving the inequalities inherent in reproductive asymmetry, abortion attempts to level the playing field by allowing women to choose violence against their children as a means of achieving parity with men.
Here we begin to understand why major companies have been so quick to extend the offer of assistance in obtaining abortions. Societal acceptance of the notion that female biology is inferior to that of men — that the male mode of being human is superior — has helped to create a corporate culture quick to pay for abortions so that women can participate in the workplace as if they were nothing more than differently shaped men. The ideal corporate worker is the unencumbered male worker.
The absorption of this mindset by modern corporate culture has created a vicious cycle fueling the demand for abortion, which is marketed to middle- and upper-class women as a “get out of jail free” card enabling them to escape accidental motherhood and climb the corporate ladder without being passed over for the preferable unattached man. To be needed and successful in the workplace, in other words, women must be just like men: never pregnant, never home with children, always available. It is this conundrum that has spawned hundreds of think pieces on whether the modern woman can “have it all” or whether it’s fair to ask women to delay marriage and childbearing for the sake of getting ahead in their careers, which many women admit to doing, albeit unwillingly.
With this underlying tension in mind, consider how these companies explained their choice to pay for abortion-related travel: “Not only is supporting access to comprehensive reproductive care for our colleagues pivotal in supporting our women-led work force, but also crucial to our commitment toward full gender parity and equal opportunity in the workplace and broader society,” said clothing company H&M.
Vox Media’s CEO put it this way: Dobbs “puts families, communities and the economy at risk, threatening the gains that women have made in the workplace over the past 50 years.”
Then there was this revealing comment from Sarah Jackel, chief operating officer of Civitech: “It makes good business sense. There’s no reason we should be putting our employees in the position of having to choose between keeping their job or carrying out an unwanted pregnancy.”
These remarks echo an earlier comment from Christopher Miller, head of global activism strategy for ice-cream company Ben & Jerry’s: “If you’re operating in a state like Texas, it puts you at a competitive disadvantage. It makes it difficult to deliver on pay equity and recruiting and retaining talented leaders when there is a blatant attack against women.”
Miller was referring to the Texas law S.B. 8, enacted last fall, but he was making the same point as Jackel and H&M. On its face, it sounds like these executives want to support women in the workplace and are willing to back abortion financially if it helps them recruit and retain employees. But in reality, they’re admitting to precisely what pro-life feminists have been saying all along: Companies prefer female workers who will sterilize themselves and even kill their own children in order to remain available and thus employable. It’s for this reason that companies have pledged money for abortion without offering any comparable increases in maternity leave, child-care benefits, or assistance for couples traveling to complete an adoption.
Women are told that they’ll be most free and fulfilled when they’re empowered to remain in the workplace, but in reality they’re being sold a bill of goods — especially given that most women would like to get married and have children sooner than they do, and most end up having fewer children than they would’ve preferred. Abortion isn’t a real solution to a workplace culture that prefers the male model of embodiment and availability. It’s a booby prize handed out to women in lieu of making room for them as women at the boardroom table — and it’s a major reason why that anti-woman workplace culture continues to exist at all.
EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.
Photo by Jorge Vasconez on Unsplash