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The Hill
The Hill
11 Mar 2023
Nathaniel Weixel

NextImg:Walgreens gets dragged into abortion war

Walgreens, the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain, has found itself embroiled in the abortion battle after confirming that they will not dispense abortion pills in certain states, even in some where it’s still legal to do so.

The move has churned up a storm of political outrage in Congress and among Democratic state leaders, who said they were concerned about a slippery slope. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) accused Walgreens of caving to “extremists” and said the state won’t renew its multimillion dollar contract. 

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and state Attorney General Letitia James (D) called on the company to commit to making abortion pills available in the state — though New York already guarantees abortion access and does not have any restrictions on abortion pills.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said she also wants assurances Walgreens that will continue to ensure mifepristone is available in her “pro choice state.”

“They shouldn’t just decide the law themselves,” Cortez Masto told The Hill. 

Sen. Richard Blumethal (D-Conn) told The Hill he thinks Newsom has the right idea, and that if Walgreens refuses to change its policy, “I’m going to be urging consumers to vote with their feet and their pocketbooks and just go elsewhere with their business.”

Medication abortion is the most common method for ending a pregnancy, and access to the pills has become the latest flash point in the nation’s culture wars. 

Walgreens isn’t the only pharmacy that will dispense abortion pills, but it’s facing the brunt of the criticism after its competitors like Albertsons, Costco, CVS, Kroger and Walmart have refused to comment.

In a statement to The Hill, Rite Aid said only that it is “monitoring the latest federal, state, legal and regulatory developments regarding mifepristone dispensing and we will continue to evaluate the company’s ability to dispense mifepristone in accordance with those developments.” 

Experts said the tightrope Walgreens is walking as it tries to navigate a patchwork of constantly changing state laws is an example of the chaos unleashed when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

“I think what other companies are probably watching very closely are the non-legal repercussions,” said Rachel Rebouché, dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law. “What is happening in the court of public opinion? Are they going to lose customers? Are they going to gain customers? And the landscape is so dynamic, it’s hard to know.”

The decision from Walgreens came after 20 Republican state attorneys general in a letter last month warned of legal consequences if the company started distributing the drug. 

A Walgreens spokesman said the company responded to each attorney general who signed the letter, telling them the company will not dispense mifepristone, a medication used to end pregnancy, in its brick-and-mortar pharmacies and will not mail it to those states.

Included among the states were Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and Montana, where abortion remains legal and restrictions on dispensing abortion medication have been paused or even permanently blocked in court. 

In Kansas, for example, voters said the right to an abortion is protected by the state constitution. A state law prohibited anyone except a physician from dispensing mifepristone, but it has since been blocked in court. A hearing is set for later this month.

Abortion is also legal in Montana, and the state’s requirement for a patient to have an in-person visit with a physician before being prescribed mifepristone is being challenged. 

Rebouché said she understands why the company may want to proceed cautiously in states where there’s active litigation.

But mifepristone has been on the market and approved by the Food and Drug Administration for more than 20 years and Rebouché said pharmacies shouldn’t be intimidated from legally dispensing it. 

The legal landscape after the end of Roe v. Wade is complicated and changing constantly, she said, but the Republican AGs wrote as if the law was settled. 

“Threatening action, where it’s very unclear that anybody could take that action, and it’s even more unclear that that action would be successful, and having companies make decisions about which legal drugs to dispense based on that? Yeah, that’s not a great pattern,” Rebouché said. 

In an effort to try to clarify its position amid the growing backlash, Walgreens said it will continue with plans to dispense mifepristone “in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so.”

“We will dispense this medication consistent with federal and state laws. Providing legally approved medications to patients is what pharmacies do, and is rooted in our commitment to the communities in which we operate,” the company said in a statement.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are pressing the company to be more specific. 

A letter led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asks Walgreens to commit to selling mifepristone even in states where legislation banning medication abortion has been enjoined by the courts.

“The law is clear that medication abortion is legal in Kansas, Iowa, Montana, and Alaska – all states where it appeared that Walgreens, in response to saber-rattling from anti-abortion extremists – would not be providing it,” the Democrats wrote.

 “The refusal to dispense a medication that is legal and safe to patients in need would be a betrayal of your customers, and your commitment to champion the health and well-being of every community in America,” they added.

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