Companies that pay for abortion spark privacy fears

In the hours after the Supreme Court reversed Roe vs. Wade On Friday, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, several major U.S. corporations announced they would cover travel costs for employees who had to cross state lines to get abortions.

Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it will provide up to $4,000 in travel reimbursement for employees who live in states where abortion is banned, so they “can access the same health care options, wherever they live, and choose what suits them best”. CEO Lauren Hobart said in a LinkedIn Publish. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it will provide travel reimbursements “to the extent permitted by law” for employees who need to access reproductive care in another state. “We are evaluating the best way to do this given the legal complexities involved,” a spokesperson for Meta said. Disney told employees that a benefit giving them access to out-of-state care extends to “family planning (including pregnancy termination),” according to a company spokesperson.

They are among more than 25 companies— many of whom are household names — who announced such policies in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court ruling or after Friday’s official ruling.

But as the dust settles in a post-deer In the United States, corporate involvement in the abortion care of their employees also raises a host of new legal and privacy issues. And abortion rights advocates are frustrated that people who get pregnant in states where abortion is illegal or heavily restricted will have to depend on their employer when making complex healthcare decisions.

“It is certain that the women who need to access care are not happy that we are here. It is a political failure. It’s a systemic failure,” says Erika Seth Davies, CEO of Rhia Ventures, a fund focused on reproductive health care that has encouraged companies to improve access to abortion. “And now we have to look to the private sector to make sure people can get what they need, and that’s a very precarious position.”

Kayte Spector-Bagdady, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Michigan who focuses on health data, says she appreciates companies that make well-meaning efforts to support employee access to abortion. But there is still a lot of uncertainty about what these policies will actually mean for employees; whether the benefits will be managed by health insurance providers, supervisors or a human resources department; whether employees can use their health savings accounts for abortion care; and how employee privacy will be protected.

Read more: What abortion providers in anti-abortion states will do after Roe

“People think health information is protected because it’s about your health, and that’s not true,” she says. “I have a lot of concerns about the legality of how they are arranging this funding for travel, as well as the types of privacy protections that exist to protect the type of information generated in these relationships.”

She acknowledges that company reimbursements are a valuable resource for people who otherwise could not afford to travel for abortion care, but sharing this kind of personal information with an employer poses challenges. additional. “It’s a terrible position to put people in,” she said.

The end of Roe vs. Wade has raised new concerns about how sensitive abortion data—including period-tracking apps or internet searches for abortion-inducing drugs—could be exploited amid efforts to criminalize abortion and potentially penalize those who have abortions and those who help them.

Read more: Anti-abortion pregnancy centers collect tons of data that could be used against women

So far, no state has provided criminal penalties for people seeking abortions, but there are signs that such laws could be coming. Texas and Oklahoma have passed laws allowing individuals to sue abortion providers and others who help someone get an abortion. It’s not yet clear whether companies that pay for employee abortion-related travel could also be liable, though a group of Texas Republican lawmakers has pledged to introduce legislation that would stop companies from making business in the state if they paid for abortions in other states, the Texas Tribune reported. And earlier this year, a Louisiana Republican introduced a bill that would classify abortion as homicide and allow prosecutors to criminally charge abortion patients. The bill was withdrawn after criticism, but it has alarmed abortion rights advocates.

Roughly half of Americans have health insurance through an employer — and experts note that employers have already had access to other sensitive health information about their employees, which is often protected by federal health data privacy laws. But it’s not yet clear how each company will handle its new abortion access policies, especially if it’s threatened with legal or financial penalties.

“When we talk about telling your employer you’re going to have an abortion and the employer giving you money to support that decision, that goes way beyond any scope of protected health data,” Spector-Bagdady says. “And also, I fear, opens up women to additional levels of potential discrimination.”

She says companies must prioritize data privacy to protect employee information as much as possible, while rolling out new policies supporting access to abortion, “both to protect the company itself same, but also in some States, the wife of any criminal responsibility”.

Read more: What to know about post-roe abortion pills

So far, no state has passed a law restricting the ability of patients to travel out of state for an abortion. But reproductive rights advocates fear anti-abortion lawmakers will pursue this in the future. “Employers need to make sure that in providing these payment systems, they put themselves in the employee’s shoes for a while and ask themselves, ‘You know, what protections are needed to ensure that employees can be at the comfortable enjoying it? “, he says. Liz Brown, associate professor of business law and ethics at Bentley University in Massachusetts.

One of the most important protections, she says, is confidentiality, “so an employee doesn’t have to, for example, ask their boss or let them know.”

With deer reversed, 26 states are likely to ban abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization advocating for abortion rights. And low-income people and women of color are likely to be hardest hit by lack of access to abortion, further exacerbating racial disparities in health care.

Brown says it’s important for companies to keep this in mind and extend abortion access policies to all frontline retail or service workers, not just office workers. the company. “I strongly encourage employers to expand access to this particular benefit as much as possible, given the racial imbalance in the population that will be most affected by these restrictions,” Brown said.

So far, many major retailers have remained silent on this issue. It’s also why United for Respect, a nonprofit that advocates for retail workers, called on Walmart to follow other companies and adopt a similar abortion access policy for retail workers. retail business. (A Walmart spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

“With a heavy concentration of outlets in the South – where several states have instituted abortion-inducing laws – Walmart has an opportunity and a duty to step in and ensure its associates are supported in the decisions they make about their own bodies,” Bianca Agustin, director of corporate responsibility at United for Respect, said in a statement.

“As the largest private employer in the nation, Walmart leaders can set the standard for other businesses by supporting associates and providing adequate maternity leave, paid sick leave and covering the cost of associate expenses. who must cross state lines to gain access. abortion services.

And many reproductive rights advocates have called on companies to do more than provide health benefits, but to stop donating to lawmakers who supported anti-abortion legislation.

“We should never have gotten to this point where companies reactively – and falsely – pledge to fight for access to abortion,” said UltraViolet, an equality organization. gender and reproductive health, in a statement. Tweeter. The group says the companies have donated over $195 million collectively to anti-abortion lawmakers since 2020.

Davies thinks corporate abortion access policies are a step in the right direction, but it’s just the beginning. She would like to see more companies lobby Congress for federal policies that support reproductive health care and protect access to abortion.

“We don’t need to be in this situation where we have to, again, look to the private sector for that coverage and that access,” she says. “How do companies leverage their political spending? Is it consistent with the values ​​they defend? And if it isn’t, then it should be.

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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