Companies Paying for Abortion Travel Sparks Privacy Fears

YouIn the hours following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V. WadeNumerous major U.S. companies announced that they will cover employees who have to travel across state lines in order to get an abortion.

Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would provide up to $4,000 in travel expense reimbursement to employees who live in states with abortion restrictions, so they “can access the same health care options, regardless of where they live, and choose what is best for them,” CEO Lauren Hobart said in a LinkedIn post. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it would offer travel expense reimbursements “to the extent permitted by law” for employees who need to access reproductive care in another state. “We are in the process of assessing how best to do so given the legal complexities involved,” a Meta spokesperson said. Disney told employees that a benefit offering them access to care in other states extends to “family planning (including pregnancy termination),” according to a company spokesperson.

They’re among more than 25 companies—many of them household names—that announced such policies in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision or after the official ruling on Friday.

The dust will settle in the post-Roe America, companies’ involvement in their employees’ abortion care also raises a host of new legal and privacy issues. Abortion-rights activists are annoyed that women who fall pregnant in states with strict abortion laws or restrictions will need to rely on their employers as they make complicated health decisions.

“Certainly women who have to access care are not overjoyed that this is where we find ourselves. This is a policy error. This is 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’re having to look to the private sector to just see to it that 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 are making well-intentioned efforts to support employees’ access to abortion. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty regarding 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 employees’ privacy will be protected.

Learn More: What will the Anti-Abortion States’ Abortion Providers Do After Roe?

“People think of health information as being protected because it’s about your health, and that’s not accurate,” she says. “I have a lot of concerns regarding the legality of the way they arrange this funding for travel, as well as the kinds of privacy protections that are in existence to protect the kind of information being generated in these relationships.”

While she acknowledges the value of company reimbursements for those who cannot afford to travel abroad for treatment, it is not easy for them to share that information with employers. “It’s a terrible position to put people into,” she says.

End of Roe V. Wade has given rise to new concerns about how sensitive abortion data—including period-tracking apps or internet searches for abortion-inducing medication—could be exploited amid efforts to criminalize abortion and potentially penalize people who have an abortion and those who help them.

Continue reading: The Data Collecting Centers for Anti-Abortion Pregnancy are Using to Weaponize Women

So far, no states have criminal penalties for people who seek abortions—but there are signs that such laws may be coming. Oklahoma and Texas passed laws that allow private citizens to sue those who assist someone getting abortions. It’s not yet clear if companies paying for employees’ abortion-related travel could also be liable, though a group of Republican lawmakers in Texas pledged to introduce legislation that would stop corporations from doing business in the state if they pay for abortions in other states, the Texas Tribune reported. A bill was introduced by a Republican from Louisiana earlier in the year that would make abortion homicide, and allow for criminal prosecutions of abortion patients. Although the bill was rejected, it alarmated abortion rights advocates.

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

“When we’re talking about telling your employer that you’re going to get an abortion and the employer giving you cash to support that decision, that is far outside any scope of protected health data,” Spector-Bagdady says. “And also, I fear, opens women up to additional layers of potential discrimination.”

She says companies need to prioritize data privacy to protect employee information as much as possible, while they roll out new policies supporting abortion access, “both to protect the company itself, but also in some states, the woman from criminal liability.”

Learn More: Here are some facts about abortion pills post-op

So far, no states have passed laws restricting patients’ ability to travel out of state for an abortion. However, reproductive rights activists fear that the anti-abortion movement could continue to pursue this goal. “Employers should make sure that in providing these payment systems, they are standing in the shoes of the employee for a moment and thinking, ‘You know, what protections are necessary to ensure that employees can be comfortable taking advantage of them?’” says Liz Brown, an associate professor of business law and ethics at Bentley University in Massachusetts.

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

With RoeAccording to Guttmacher Institute (a research group that supports abortion rights), 26 states will likely ban abortion once the ruling is overturned. Lack of abortion access will be especially detrimental to women of color and low income people, further exacerbating the racial disparities of healthcare.

Brown says it’s important for companies to keep that in mind and extend abortion-access policies to all front-line retail or service workers, not just employees in corporate offices. “I would strongly encourage employers to broaden access to this particular benefit as much as possible, considering the racial imbalance in the population that’s going to be most affected by these restrictions,” Brown says.

So far, most large retailers—with the exception of Dick’s—have remained silent on this issue. That’s also why United for Respect, a nonprofit advocating for retail workers, has called on Walmart to follow other companies and enact a similar abortion-access policy for retail employees. Walmart representatives did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

“With a heavy concentration of retail locations in the south—where several states have abortion trigger laws in place—Walmart has an opportunity and a duty to step up and ensure its associates are supported in decisions they make about their own bodies,” Bianca Agustin, corporate accountability director at United for Respect, said in a statement.

“As the largest private employer in the nation, Walmart executives can set the standard for other companies by supporting their associates and providing adequate maternity leave, paid sick leave, and covering the cost of expenses for associates who need to travel across state lines to access abortion services.”

Many advocates for reproductive rights call on businesses to offer more than health benefits and to cease donating to lawmakers who support anti-abortion legislation.

“We should have never gotten here—to this point where corporations are reactively—and falsely —committing to fighting for abortion access,” UltraViolet, an organization that advocates for gender equality and reproductive health, said in a tweet. This group claims that since 2020, more than $195,000,000 has been donated by corporations to anti-abortion legislation.

Davies thinks that companies’ abortion-access policies represent a step in the right direction, but it’s only a start. It would be great to have more companies lobby Congress in support of federal policies for reproductive health and abortion access.

“We don’t have to be in this position of having to, again, look to the private sector for this coverage and this access,” she says. “How are companies leveraging their political spending? Does it align with their values? And if it’s not, then it should be.”

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