For advocates of women’s reproductive health, it’s been pretty much all doom and gloom since last summer when the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, ending a nearly 50-year US constitutional right to abortion.
As it happens, all three companies are run by women. See, this is exactly why we need more women in the C-suite, I crowed — a tidy example of how enterprises run by women are more likely to serve both underrepresented and oft-ignored consumer groups right alongside their business interests.
But earlier this month my case study started to get messy with a Politico headline: “Walgreens won’t distribute abortions pills in some states where they remain legal.” Twenty-one Republican state attorneys general had written to the company and its competitors, threatening legal ramifications if they attempted to distribute abortion pills. Walgreens’ response to the AGs, telling them the pharmacy would not sell mifepristone in their states, immediately led to fiery accusations from the left of caving to pressure from the right and pronouncements of victory from Republicans.
I was among the disappointed. I’ve followed the rise of Walgreens’ CEO Rosalind Brewer back to her days running Walmart Inc.’s Sam’s Club division and onto the No. 2 job at Starbucks Corp. One of two Black women at the helm of a Fortune 500 company, she once received death threats for talking to CNN about the importance of diversity in business. I’ve interviewed Brewer several times, and, candidly, I like her. This move seemed out of character, and I wanted to understand how her company had ended up here.
If you’re looking for the simple answer, blame the culture wars. But these battles have never been so complicated, especially when it comes to abortion. Right now, companies like Walgreens are navigating a political and legal minefield as we collectively try to sort through what a post-Roe America looks like — a question that is still very much in flux. You need only turn to Texas, where on Wednesday a judge heard arguments in a case that threatens to reverse the FDA’s approval of mifepristone nationally.
Companies are having to traverse this ever-changing and tense landscape as pretty much all nuance has gone out the window on a complicated issue that demands it. Ignoring any subtlety is also a strategy; it benefits the political ends of both the left and the right.
For a prime example of how easily things can get obscured, let’s go back to the Politico piece that started the whole firestorm. The headline — “Walgreens won’t distribute abortions pills in some states where they remain legal” — while technically accurate, is misleading. In some of the states in question, like Alaska, it is correct that medication abortion is legal. But it’s not necessarily legal for an enterprise like Walgreens to distribute mifepristone because of additional regulations, some of which require a physician dispense the drug. (Politico eventually updated the headline to “Walgreens won’t distribute abortion pills in states where GOP AGs object.”)
While the letter from the Republican attorneys general was news, Walgreens position really was not. Ever since the company announced that it would pursue certification, it has always said that it will distribute mifepristone in compliance with state and federal law. Part of the problem seems to be the lack of clarity and changing nature of what compliance means.
That has not stopped Democratic politicians from using Walgreens as a way to rile up their base. (The company had already drawn the ire and protests from anti-abortion advocates back in January when it said it would pursue certification to distribute abortion pills). Democratic attorneys general wrote their own letter, urging pharmacy chains to move forward despite the threats from Republicans. Senators from the party also chimed in, chastising Walgreens for adding to the confusion and saying that the company’s response to the Republican AGs had been “unacceptable.” One argument on their side is that drugs are regulated by the Federal government and the FDA’s rules should supersede state laws.
Loudest and most headline-grabbing was California Governor Gavin Newsom, who clearly has national political aspirations. He canceled a $54 million contract with Walgreens over its position, despite the fact that pharmacies will be able to distribute abortion pills in his state legally. “California won’t be doing business with Walgreens — or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women’s lives at risk,” he tweeted. Walgreens has pointed out Newsom doesn’t have a great alternative. “No other retail pharmacies have said that they would approach this situation differently, so it’s unclear where this contract would now be moved,” the company said.
It’s fuzzy whether some Democrats are putting pressure on Walgreens because they believe conflicting state and federal laws throw into question what is actually legal, or whether they acknowledge that Walgreens would be breaking certain state laws and want it to move forward anyway. Either way, they ignore the very real risk facing Walgreens: Some of its pharmacists could have their licenses revoked, face fines, or even end up in jail. If Democrats were truly prioritizing access over grandstanding, they would be spending more time lobbying Walmart, Kroger Co., Albertsons Cos., and Costco Wholesale Corp. Those big retailers have yet to say that they will even get their pharmacies certified to dispense abortion pills. It was only earlier this week that Democratic senators sent letters to their CEOs (who all happen to be men), asking them to state their intentions by March 21. Meanwhile, CVS and Rite Aid have largely managed to remain studiously silent and avoid much comment on the whole matter.But you can be sure they are all watching as Walgreens get tossed about and both sides of the aisle play politics with women’s health and lives. It’s unlikely that’s making any of them particularly eager to jump into the fray alongside Brewer. And that’s especially troubling at a moment when women most need the access they can provide — even if it isn’t in all 50 states.More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• New Pro-Choice Abortion Pill Lawsuit Is a Gamble: Noah Feldman
• Rising US Maternal Mortality Rate Is Unacceptable: Lisa Jarvis
• The Outspoken CEO Is a Rapidly Dying Breed: Beth Kowitt
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Beth Kowitt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering corporate America. She was previously a senior writer and editor at Fortune Magazine.
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