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California suspends $54M Walgreens contract over abortion pills policy

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said California will stop doing business with Walgreens after the drugstore chain moved to halt sales of abortion pills in 20 Republican-led states. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)
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California suspended a $54 million contract with Walgreens on Wednesday over the pharmacy chain’s decision not to distribute mifepristone in at least 20 states, including some where abortion is legal, as conflict over the drug used in medication abortions continues to escalate.

“California will not stand by as corporations cave to extremists and cut off critical access to reproductive care and freedom,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a statement. Noting that the state has one of the largest economies in the world, he added that “we will leverage our market power to defend the right to choose.”

Newsom called this week for a review of all contracts between California and Walgreens after the pharmacy chain committed to not selling mifepristone in states where it had received legal threats from Republican leaders. The contract being halted allows California state agencies — primarily the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — to procure specialty prescription drugs from Walgreens and was due for renewal May 1, the governor’s office said in the statement.

Walgreens drew a line on abortion pill access and is paying a price

Walgreens said it is “deeply disappointed” by the state’s decision and that after it receives certification to distribute mifepristone it plans to do so in states where it is legal, including California.

“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,” Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said in an email.

The American Medical Association says mifepristone is a safe and effective treatment for inducing abortions. Since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000, the drug has been used by over 3 million women in the United States, the AMA said.

Mifepristone is the first pill used in the two-drug regimen for medication abortions, which now account for more than half of pregnancy terminations in the United States.

But Walgreens has been caught in a bind post-Roe v. Wade as antiabortion groups and conservative leaders intensify efforts to restrict abortion access.

Twenty Republican state leaders last month sent a letter to the chain that threatened legal action if it were to mail abortion pills in their states, citing a federal law that prohibits mailing anything that could induce an abortion. The Justice Department, in an opinion published in December, said the law does not prohibit mailing abortion pills if they are not used unlawfully.

The attorneys general who signed the letter include those from Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and Montana, where abortion is legal.

Walgreens responded to each of the leaders that same month committing to neither mailing nor selling mifepristone in their states, leading to criticism that it had bowed to pressure — and to California’s decision to cut ties with the chain.

As of now, Walgreens does not sell the pill in any state as it is awaiting certification to do so from the FDA.

Other drugstore chains are facing similar pressures. Kansas attorney general Kris Kobach on Feb. 21 wrote to CVS, the country’s largest retail pharmacy, asking it to follow Walgreens’ lead and not sell the drug there.

The Texas judge who could take down the abortion pill

The matter is further complicated by differing state requirements for medication abortions. In certain states, including Alaska and Iowa, this form of abortion has to be administered by a doctor. In Iowa, a bill was introduced in the House in January to ban the manufacture and sale of mifepristone altogether.

There are also ongoing legal battles with nationwide implications. In Texas, a conservative judge appointed by President Donald Trump is expected to soon rule on the FDA’s approval of mifepristone two decades ago, which could impact Democratic-led states where abortion rights are protected.

California is not the only state to have condemned Walgreens. J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic governor of Illinois, where the chain is headquartered, said he would meet its CEO this week over the issue, local media reported. In a tweet earlier this week, Pritzker urged the company to rethink its policy.