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Most investors don't want to know more about abortion risks that companies face

The pushback is part of a larger turn against ESG measures during the 2023 proxy season

Activists asked shareholders to back numerous proposals this year requiring American companies to disclose more about the risks they face now that women no longer have the constitutional right to an abortion.

So far, most shareholders aren't interested.

This spring investors rejected a series of shareholder proposals that called for added transparency about how companies handle law enforcement requests for abortion-related customer data, what political contributions they make that conflict with stated values, and ways that limited abortion care can impact hiring and retaining workers.

Thus far all 16 proposals that went to a vote at annual meetings failed, including one that fell short of a majority of Comcast (CMCSA) shareholders on Wednesday.

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Fourteen others were withdrawn, and in some cases, proponents revoked proposals after companies agreed to more transparency or broader consumer protections. One proposal asking Mastercard (MA) to disclose the risks of handling law enforcement requests for abortion-related customer data is scheduled for a vote on June 27.

Votes were cast by shareholders of some of the country’s most prominent companies, including Alphabet (GOOG, GOOGL), Meta (META), Walmart (WMT), Home Depot (HD), Pfizer (PFE), Abbvie (ABBV), Costco (COST), and Coca-cola (KO).

Here's a closer look at those results:

Anti-ESG

The lack of support is part of a wider pushback against proposals that demand action on a variety of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues ranging from corporate diversity to carbon emissions.

In fact, conservative-leaning shareholders have pushed a record number of anti-ESG proposals during recent proxy seasons, a time in the spring and summer when shareholders seek votes on specific proposals.

The number of anti-ESG resolutions on corporate ballots between January 1 through May 31 rose by more than 400% from 2020 to 2023, according to ISS Corporate Solutions. That helped drive the volume of shareholder proposals up by 14 percent during that period.

FILE - Demonstrators protest about abortion outside the Supreme Court in Washington, June 24, 2022. Confidence in the Supreme Court sank to its lowest point in at least 50 years in 2022, in the wake of the Dobbs decision that led to state bans and other restrictions on abortion. That's according to the General Social Survey, a long-running and widely respected survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago that has been measuring confidence in the court since 1973, the same year that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Protesters outside the Supreme Court in June 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Activists first gave renewed attention to reproductive rights last year when the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that guaranteed American women the federal constitutional right to an abortion.

A leak of the court's draft majority opinion last May triggered some of the first abortion-related proposals. The number of reproductive rights proposals then doubled to roughly 31 between the 2022 and 2023 proxy seasons.

'More momentum'

One activist investor who encountered pushback from shareholders this year was Arjuna Capital, which was responsible for abortion-related proposals at CVS (CVS), United Parcel Service (UPS), Costco (COST), Meta, and Alphabet.

Arjuna argued for the proposals at tech companies like Meta and Alphabet because they are huge arbiters of data. Shareholders for both companies voted down measures that would have required them to assess and minimize how much abortion-related customer data is shared with law enforcement.

Shareholders in UPS and Costco similarly voted 'no' to measures that would have required the businesses to report risks caused by state policies restricting reproductive rights, as well as possible mitigation strategies.

The latest defeat came on Wednesday when Comcast shareholders decided against a measure asking the telecom giant to regularly disclose its political donations to anti-abortion politicians and organizations that conflict with its publicly stated values.

Arjuna Capital co-founder and managing partner Natasha Lamb stands for a photo in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Lamb talked with The Associated Press about Microsoft and investors' growing interest in environmental, social and governance assets, known as ESG. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Arjuna Capital managing partner Natasha Lamb. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Arjuna, however, did succeed in securing new data protection practices at CVS. Negotiations concerning its proposal led the healthcare company to agree to expand privacy protections around consumer health data.

“While the proposals have not garnered majority support thus far, the more important outcome is to get companies and investors considering how restricting reproductive freedoms carries inherent business risk,” Arjuna managing partner Natasha Lamb said.

ISS said the votes track with an overall drop in enthusiasm for all shareholder proposals in 2023.

"When all is said and done, we expect support for shareholder proposals to be down over past years and potentially closer to pre-pandemic norms,” said Jun Frank, managing director at ISS Corporate Solutions.

Lamb said she is not giving up.

"Unfortunately, the business risks from restricting reproductive freedoms are not going away anytime soon," she said, "and we expect more momentum on this issue heading into the next proxy season."

Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow Alexis on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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