Walgreens will not distribute abortion pills in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, or Montana — states where they are currently legal — as the company treads carefully amid legal and political pressure from the antiabortion movement.
At issue is a decision by the Food and Drug Administration in early January to allow brick-and-mortar drugstores to carry mifepristone, part of an abortion drug cocktail that is now thought to account for more than half of abortions in the United States. Walgreens has said it intends to become a certified pharmacy under the program, although it would distribute only “in those jurisdictions where it is legal to do so,” company spokesman Fraser Engerman said at the time.
But the FDA decision drew the attention of 20 Republican state attorneys general, who in a letter sent Feb. 1 warned of legal action if the drugstore chain participated. Walgreens responded to each of them by promising not to distribute the drug in their state, Engerman said.
“This is a very complex and in flux area of the law and we are taking that into account as we seek certification to dispense mifepristone,” Engerman said in an e-mail late Thursday, adding that Walgreens does not currently carry the drug.
Abortion pills can already be obtained through online pharmacies, which mail the medications directly to patients. Some states have tried to ban the mailing of abortion pills, but the Justice Department has said the US Postal Service can deliver abortion pills to any state. The recent FDA decision is meant to give women more ways to access the medications.
Some pharmacies may be waiting on the outcome of a lawsuit, filed in Texas by the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom, which seeks to undo the drug’s 19-year-old approval. A decision from US District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, an appointee of President Trump, threatens to disrupt the drug’s FDA approval.
Walgreens is among the major pharmacies that have come under pressure from antiabortion activists. Its annual shareholder meeting in late January was disrupted by protesters. Days later, at a CVS pharmacy in Pittsburgh, demonstrators on both sides of the debate tried to drown each other out with megaphones. On Feb. 14, another protest erupted at the Walgreens national headquarters in Chicago.
Engerman, the Walgreens spokesman, said the company respects the right to protest. “We believe strongly in the right to peaceful protest, and an area was set aside for this purpose, but unfortunately some protesters took further disruptive actions,” Engerman said.
Caroline Smith, spokeswoman for Progressive Anti-abortion Uprising, said her group held protests in early February that spread to 60 confirmed cities and had participation from at least one elected official.
Walgreens is “a bit smaller than CVS, and we suspect that if Walgreens is compelled to abandon their effort to obtain the abortion pill, CVS may be more likely to follow,” she said.
Abortion rights supporters are also engaging with pharmacies. The Ensuring Medication Abortion Access Project, an organization that says it seeks to improve how abortion medications are dispensed in the United States, started reaching out to pharmacies in late 2021, according to Kirsten Moore, the group’s director.
“What I was really pleasantly surprised to hear from most pharmacies was, ‘This is an FDA-approved drug and we have no problem carrying it,’” Moore said. Her goal is to build a “coalition of the willing” among major pharmacies willing to carry the drug. One exception may be Walmart, which is based in deeply Republican Arkansas, she said.
The major pharmacy chains face a complicated legal and political calculus that differs widely from state to state. In Kansas, for example, the state Supreme Court has ruled that the right to an abortion is protected by the state constitution. But state law requires abortion drugs be “administered by or in the same room as” the prescribing doctor, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach warned Walgreens in another letter.
The drugstore chain’s chief legal officer, Danielle Gray, responded to Kobach by saying the company had no plans to sell the drug in Kansas or ship it there. “If this approach changes, we will be sure to notify you,” Gray wrote.
CVS and Rite-Aid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.