Opinion: Walgreens is despicable for bowing to pressure not to sell abortion pills in some states

File photo/Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times / A few weeks after Republican attorneys general in 21 states sent letters threatening legal action against retail pharmacy chains if they dispensed the abortion pill mifepristone, Walgreens said in March 2023 it would not distribute the pill in those states. In this photo, a Walgreens pharmacy is shown in Cleveland on Feb. 27, 2018.
File photo/Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times / A few weeks after Republican attorneys general in 21 states sent letters threatening legal action against retail pharmacy chains if they dispensed the abortion pill mifepristone, Walgreens said in March 2023 it would not distribute the pill in those states. In this photo, a Walgreens pharmacy is shown in Cleveland on Feb. 27, 2018.

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this year that it would allow drugstore chains to sell mifepristone, the highly regulated first drug taken in a two-drug regimen for medication abortion, Walgreens and other pharmacy chains eagerly stepped up and said they would go through the required certification process.

But after attorneys general in 20 Republican-led states wrote an ominous letter to Walgreens' executive vice president reminding her of abortion laws and warning -- questionably -- that it was illegal to mail abortion pills in the U.S., the company told several news outlets that it would not sell in those states. The company received a similar letter from Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach -- and wrote back saying it wouldn't sell the drug in Kansas.

Walgreens insisted in statements in recent days that once it was certified, it would sell the abortion pills in states where it was legal.

But the retailer's statements to the general public conflict with what it has told those conservative states. Abortion -- including medication abortion -- is legal in half of the 21 states that wrote to Walgreens and later received assurances the retailer would not sell in those states. And most of those states where it's legal allow people to take abortion medication outside of a provider's office -- which means Walgreens can sell in those states. In the rest of those states abortion is banned with limited exceptions or, in one case, unavailable because there is no abortion clinic.

The one thing that all the 21 states have in common are elected officials hostile to abortion rights.

It would be understandable if Walgreens officials put out a statement saying their hands were tied in the 10 states where abortion is banned. But instead the pharmacy chain caved to political pressure, and that is despicable.

No wonder California Gov. Gavin Newsom exploded on Twitter, declaring, "California won't be doing business with Walgreens -- or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women's lives at risk. We're done." It's still not clear whether the state of California can be "done" with Walgreens, and what it might mean for government-subsidized prescriptions. The relationship is more complicated than Newsom's statement suggests, but we certainly understand his frustration.

In a post-Roe era when states are trying to restrict abortion, including medication abortion, which is more easily available than a surgical abortion, it's outrageous for a drugstore chain to be in any way connected to thwarting access. Abortion care is health care, and that should be Walgreens' primary concern.

It also sets a dangerous example that could induce more people to try to bully businesses into taking away people's right to health care. In states where abortion is precariously available and constantly under attack, chains like Walgreens are lifelines for pregnant people with limited resources to travel to a clinic.

When Walgreens capitulated to Kobach's letter warning the company not to send mail-order mifepristone into Kansas -- where access to medication abortion is under attack -- and assured him that it would not sell the drug at all in the state, the attorney general chortled in a news release that Walgreens' decision was "a significant victory for the pro-life cause and for women's health." Medication abortion is extremely safe. This was nothing more than a political scare tactic -- and the fact that Walgreens fell for it is deeply disturbing.

Shame on Walgreens executives who have rewarded years of support from customers with a cold shoulder just when they need help most. This spineless betrayal has already caused the company's stock to dip amid understandable calls for boycotts. Walgreens should reverse course, take back promises made to antiabortion politicians and loudly affirm that the chain will indeed sell mifepristone in every state where abortion is legal.

The Los Angeles Times