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What We’re Missing When We Talk about ‘Roe’

by Yolanda Murphy and Caroline Weisser

When a draft version of a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade leaked, the Court fell victim to a trend that has befuddled its co-equal branches of government for years and, increasingly, many companies and their leadership. And it pushed the issue of abortion into the public discussion ahead of the height of a midterm election year.

As communicators, we know how we talk about and portray issues tends to determine what we choose to do about them. What do we say when we talk about abortion?

We often use sanitized terms: women’s health care, family planning. President Biden’s statement condemning the draft opinion turns out to be one of the few times a White House statement on abortion actually contained the word “abortion.”

We talk about abortion as a political cudgel. It’s a wedge issue, a barometer, a litmus test. We talk about polling, red states and blue states. We talk about how overturning Roe will threaten everyone’s rights to a private life without government intrusion. We talk about choice. We talk about life.

While this is all real and meaningful, it misses who is truly impacted by it all. It separates us from the person receiving an abortion and strips them of their voice, their dignity and ultimately their power. We don’t often talk about the loving mom of two kids who knows she can’t afford to feed them if she has a third. The traumatized teenager who finds themselves pregnant after being sexually assaulted by a family member. The frightened wife in an abusive marriage whose nurturing instinct knows a supportive environment for a child is worlds away. The hopeful parent-to-be who learns their body is not capable of carrying a baby to full term without losing their own life. And we rarely talk about the mental, physical, and emotional recovery required in these and many other agonizing circumstances.

A person receives an abortion.

For business leaders, this person works for you. And because so many people in the U.S. receive health coverage through their employers, a significant portion of your workforce is wondering if they will have the same health care come June that they thought they had when they started working for you.

If Roe is overturned, abortion immediately becomes illegal in 13 states, and access becomes a question in over half of the states in the country. Banning abortion nationwide would lead to a double-digit increase in pregnancy-related deaths; for Black women, pregnancy-related deaths would increase by a third. Consistent with other health crises we face, the heaviest burden will fall on those who face barriers to health care already, people of color and those with less means to travel across state lines or take time off work to get quality care.

Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans want to uphold Roe vs. Wade. And amid a historically tight labor market, the new war for talent continues to escalate, with increasing demands to meet social and cultural expectations from the workforce of today.

For business leaders, your position, and response, starts with people. Your people. Your internal communications strategy — what you say to your people — is, for all intents and purposes, your external communications. Direct, compassionate communication builds trust with employees and external stakeholders, who will be attuned to whether your actions match your words.

In as little as a month, companies operating in states where the right to an abortion is under immediate threat will have to walk the line of following state laws and protecting their people in a way that is authentic to them. Many are auditing the health plans they offer to ensure abortion coverage. Others are preparing to set up legal funds to support employees that could face the harshest restrictions. And those responding publicly now are leading the conversation with protections for their workforces, setting a new bar for everyone to follow: covering travel expenses for medical procedures, including abortions.

People deserve power. People deserve dignity. People deserve to control their own careers, their lives, their bodies. So, the most important question to ask yourself right now: what will you tell your people?

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