OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s new anti-abortion laws will harm the state’s economic development, as companies concerned about legislative interference in business decisions and fearful of lawsuits will think twice about coming, an investment group warned this week.
Oklahoma lawmakers, though, shrugged off such concerns, saying that if there’s an economic price to pay for protecting unborn life, Oklahomans are willing to pay it.
Shelley Alpern, director of corporate engagement for San Francisco-based Rhia Ventures, said Oklahoma businesses should be concerned about legislators dictating what reproductive health insurance choices they offer employees. They should also be concerned about getting sued under the civil enforcement mechanisms included in the state’s two latest abortion measures that ban abortions at fertilization and when a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
The measures allow any person to sue anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion” or intends to engage in such conduct. It specifically includes paying for or reimbursing the costs of abortion through insurance.
Whether those lawsuits would stick and whether a plaintiff would prevail against an Oklahoma company would depend on the facts of the case and whether a company has an insurance policy governed by state regulations, Alpern said. State insurance officials said about 65% of Oklahoma businesses have self-funded insurance plans largely governed by federal regulations. The remainder are governed by state regulations.
“The law that Oklahoma just passed is a very ominous signal that Oklahoma state legislators could pass even stricter legislation that would tie the hands of companies even further,” Alpern said. “So if I were a business thinking about whether to expand in Oklahoma or relocate or open a new facility, that would certainly make me think twice if I wanted to offer inclusive and competitive benefits.”
Rhia Ventures works with investors who are broadly invested in the stock market, own shares of publicly traded corporations all over the country and identify as environmental and social governance (ESG) investors. They also press the business case for comprehensive reproductive health care access, which includes abortion access. Their investors take a closer look at social policy and how businesses are responding to environmental, social and governance challenges in addition to looking at the traditional financial metrics.
In a letter sent earlier this year to lawmakers, the group estimated that state-level abortion restrictions cost Oklahoma more than $1.7 billion in economic losses in 2020.
Alpern said an increasing number of companies are offering more comprehensive reproductive and maternal health care policies and fertility treatment access in an effort to give them an edge in a competitive job market and to keep women in their workforce.
She said 83% of women have said that having the power to choose when to have a family has played an enormous role in their careers. When women are denied abortions, they’re three times more likely to drop out of the workforce and four times more likely to end up in poverty.
“As a default, the business communities usually think of this as a social issue that they don’t want to get involved in or just a very controversial moral issue that’s just a headache and not a business issue,” Alpern said. “But it really does have its implications.”
The state Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on whether they’re concerned the anti-abortion legislation could harm existing businesses or hamper recruiting efforts.
“Social issues often impact economic development in ways that we could not possibly predict,” the state Department of Commerce said. “The Oklahoma Department of Commerce will continue our ongoing recruitment efforts to bring businesses, investment and jobs to Oklahoma.”
State Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, who has been a vocal supporter for anti-abortion legislation, said it boils down to what Oklahomans are willing to sell themselves for and what they’re willing to give up for economic investment. He also said Oklahoma should not be for sale, particularly when it comes to protecting unborn babies.
Olsen said he’s heard the “claim from the left” before that businesses are not going to want to come to Oklahoma, and people aren’t going to want to live there.
And while he acknowledges that there may be some people who don’t want to come to Oklahoma because of its stance, the state’s values could also be a draw for others.
“The flip side to remember is that there will probably also be people and businesses that want to come here … they’re looking for a place of refuge, and they might find it in a place like Oklahoma,” Olsen said.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said it will “be decided in the courtroom” whether the bills could allow an individual to sue corporations that pay for their employees to seek abortions out of state.
“I believe there is a potential viable way of doing that, but we’ll have to figure out as we go forward if that’s true,” Treat said.
When asked about the potential effect that could have on economic development, he said, “That’s not a legitimate argument against it.”
“I think that protecting life, if we have to pay an economic price for that, I’m willing to pay an economic price for that,” Treat said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at [email protected].