Private Channel: Should you tell your job you're having an abortion?

If you live in a state where abortion is restricted, be careful about where and how you share information related to your pregnancy.

May 30, 2023

Hello and welcome to #private-channel, a not-so-private space to air your concerns and hash out your grievances with your anonymous interlocutor, @Somebody. The first load of laundry we’ll be hanging out to dry deals with abortion (!) and work (¡). 

Let’s just preface this particular chore by laying out some baseline assumptions. First, in this #private-channel, the body is inviolate. You (should) get to do with it what you want! Second, as far as @Somebody is concerned, babies are born. Whatever happens before that treacherous and costly threshold is crossed exists in a liminal space. No outcome is guaranteed even in the most ideal and welcoming of circumstances. This might be a laughably simple framework for what is among the most complicated, trying, and arguably central acts a human being can perform—being pregnant and giving birth (everyone, after all, is born)—but it’s what we’re working with here at #private-channel. Finally, if you can give birth, it should be your decision, alone, to make. No one can gestate or carry or labor for you.

This means #private-channel is pro-abortion, pro-choice, pro-autonomy, pro-freedom.

In the 20 states that have restricted or banned abortion, people are being forced to continue life-threatening pregnancies, to carry nonviable fetuses, and to bear and care for children whom they were neither ready nor willing to bring into the world. Think of the parents who struggle to provide for the kids they already have; of those who were raped (among them, children) and wish to halt the ripple effects of their trauma; of those, young and old, who want to focus on their career or education or pleasure or independence. Abortion restrictions are a gross violation of human autonomy and human dignity. Everyone deserves better.

But in those 20 states, some employees of some companies—chiefly large corporations and well-funded tech firms—can access benefits to support abortions, including reimbursed travel expenses and time off. (CTRL-F away: a list of companies that have publicly confirmed such policies can be found at the bottom of the page.) Crucially, at many of these organizations, these policies only extend to workers categorized as full-time staff. Contractors are mostly denied these benefits, just as they are often denied paid time off or health-care coverage of any kind. (For the record: #private-channel's verdict on this two-tier system of employment? A firm 👎.)

Will informing your workplace about your plan to have an abortion put you at any kind of risk?

For those of you who do have the option to use employee benefits to support an abortion, is it worth it? Specifically, will informing your workplace about your plan to have an abortion put you at any kind of risk? To answer this question, @Somebody spoke with Em Lawler—training manager and counsel of the Repro Legal Defense Fund, which provides bail and defense for anyone criminalized for something that happens during pregnancy and for those who directly support them.

Lawler says the first thing to be aware of is that your employer does not have to comply with the same HIPAA privacy rules as your doctors. And in order to access these benefits, you have to disclose private health information. (The same is true of claiming parental leave under FMLA, which gives employers permission to ask for medical certification.)

If you are worried that someone in your chain of command might gain access to information about your abortion, you should! Don’t presume that there’s a firewall between HR and your manager. If you’re granted leave for an abortion and your boss knows that you don’t have any paid time off left or that you have a big meeting scheduled or a project due that same day, they may reasonably expect an answer from HR as to why your leave request was approved.

Your ability to take medical leave is protected, and employment discrimination (including against pregnant people) is illegal. However, discrimination is notoriously difficult to prove. And these rules may not protect you as a person who has ended your pregnancy—this isn’t settled law. There is no protection at all for employees who have participated in a medical procedure now deemed illegal at at-will organizations (i.e., where any employee can be fired at any time for any or no reason, so long as no employee protection laws are being violated).

But let’s move forward with the assumption that your employer is not going to fire you. Lawler says you should still be aware of potentially larger legal repercussions. People who have lost or ended pregnancies—especially those already marginalized by state and society—have been successfully prosecuted since long before the fall of Roe.

If you aren’t sure what your local laws say, look up your state in the Center for Reproductive Rights’ “Abortion Laws by State” map. You can also call the Repro Legal Helpline at 844-868-2812 to reach a free and confidential source of information about your legal rights. 

If you live in a state where abortion is restricted, be careful about where and how you share information related to your pregnancy.

“I am not worried about period-tracking apps,” Lawler says. “I’m worried about your search history, your Facebook messages”—because that information can be more easily subpoenaed. “That’s not to frighten people,” Lawler adds. “Just to keep people safe. We are in an unknown legal landscape.”

People who get clinical abortions are the least likely to be criminalized. Your doctor is at greater legal risk than you are (though your risk is not zero). Instead, hostile state governments are more likely to target people seeking self-managed abortions. That’s a big deal, because more than 50 percent of all abortions in the United States are self-managed medication abortions and take place at home instead of at a clinic. 

Traveling is hard to regulate at a state level: it’s under the federal government’s jurisdiction. Leaving a state where abortion is criminalized, having a clinical abortion in a state where it is legal, then returning home no longer pregnant leaves less potential exposure for prosecution. But if you were to leave your state to get a prescription for a medication abortion, and then take that medication after you get back home? There might be an argument that you are breaking the law by taking the pill in a state where abortion is illegal.

For this reason: Don’t tell your employer if you are having a self-managed or medication abortion. A prosecutor can subpoena your employer for those records, and the company would have to hand them over.

“I would be pretty reticent about medication abortions in general,” Lawler says. “Communicate about it over Signal. Leave as little trace as possible.”

Laws restricting abortions are misery machines. If you belong to the subset of folks living under these laws who can use employer-provided benefits to obtain an abortion, be careful and be well. For everyone else—people whose employers don’t provide these benefits, people whose employers don’t provide benefits at all, people who don’t work—check out for resources related to abortion access and how to afford it. 

How short would this column be if the United States had universal health care and abortion access? For more novel and paradigm-shifting takes, such as “socialized medicine is good” and “permanent contractorship is bad,” email with your own work-related queries. @Somebody will ask someone who should know best.

* The following companies, via reporting from the Guardian, the New York Times, and Protocol, have publicly affirmed that their employee benefits cover some kind of support for abortion access: Accenture, Adobe, Airbnb, Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Apple, Bank of America, Bloomberg, Boston Consulting Group, Box, Bumble, BuzzFeed, Chobani, Citigroup, Comcast-NBC Universal, Condé Nast, Danone, Deloitte, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Discord, Disney, DoorDash, Douglas Elliman, Estée Lauder Companies, Expedia, Ford Motor, Goldman Sachs, Google, H&M, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, HP, IBM, Impossible Foods, Intuit, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Kroger, Levi Strauss & Co., Lyft, Match Group, Meta, Microsoft, Neiman Marcus Group, Netflix, Nike, Nordstrom, OpenSea, Patagonia, PayPal, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Procter & Gamble, Ralph Lauren, Reddit, Rivian, Salesforce, Sephora, Starbucks, Target, Tesla, The Body Shop, the New York Times, Uber, UnitedHealth Group, URBN, Vanguard, Vimeo, Vox, Walmart, Warner Bros Discovery, Wells Fargo, Yahoo, Yelp, and Zillow

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