Despite losing a $54 million contract with the state of California, Walgreens appears to be heeding a stark warning from a coalition of attorney generals by not selling or mailing the abortion drug mifepristone in 21 states.

According to various news reports, Walgreens recently stated that it would not distribute abortion pills in states where officials have threatened legal action. On March 6, 2023, the national pharmacy chain released a statement detailing its position.

“Walgreens plans to dispense Mifepristone in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so. Once we are certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, we will dispense this medication consistent with federal and state laws.”

In January, the US Food and Drug Administration allowed retail pharmacies to sell the abortion pill, including by mail, providing they have received federal certification. Mifepristone, in a regimen with misoprostol, is used to end a pregnancy through ten weeks gestation. Previously, mifepristone was available only through clinics, medical offices, and hospitals under the supervision of a licensed physician. According to 2022 research from the Guttmacher Institute, medication abortion now accounts for more than half of all abortions in the United States. 

In California, Walgreens decision to not distribute abortion pills in 21 states was met with furor. On March 8, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California would pull back its renewal of a multi-million dollar contract with Walgreens, “following the company’s preemptive decision not to dispense the abortion medication Mifepristone in 21 states, including states where abortion remains legal.”

In the New York Times, Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said that the company was “deeply disappointed” by California’s decision “not to renew our longstanding contract due to false and misleading information.”

Walgreens decision to not sell or mail a mifepristone in select states was likely made due to potential legal recourse, and not political or moral grounds. In February, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey and 19 other state attorney generals, all Republican, issued warning letters to CVS and Danielle Gray, Executive Vice President of Walgreens Boots Alliance, which includes Duane Reade pharmacies and other companies.

“Following your company’s recent announcement that it plans to obtain and sell abortion pills using the mail, we write to advise you of the current law in this changing legal landscape,” the letter said. “Many people are not aware that federal law expressly prohibits using the mail to send or receive any drug that will be used or applied for producing abortion.”

The letter from the attorney generals disputes an earlier legal opinion by the Department of Justice, which gave the United States Postal Service the green light regarding the mailing of abortion pills, even to states where the procedure is illegal. The DOJ ruling did not overrule state restrictions on abortion or sanction buying meds from overseas pharmacies. The ruling also allows abortion drugs to be mailed to states where abortion is restricted/illegal IF the purpose is not to induce abortion. 

The United States Postal Service (USPS) had sought guidance on the Comstock Act of 1873, which is straightforward in its prohibition of drugs, medical instruments, and “every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion.”

“In December, the Biden administration’s Office of Legal Counsel encouraged the U.S. Postal Service to disregard this plain text”¦We reject the Biden administration’s bizarre interpretation, and we expect courts will as well. Courts do not lightly ignore the plain text of statutes,” Bailey wrote.

The Missouri Attorney General also noted that, like federal law, the laws of many states also prohibit using the mail to send or receive abortion drugs. The letter also detailed the inherent danger of the drugs.

“These state laws reflect not only our commitment to protecting the lives and dignity of children, but also of women,” the letter said. “Abortion pills are far riskier than surgical abortions, according to established scientific consensus… Abortion pills carry the added risk that when these heightened complications invariably occur, women suffer those harms at home, away from medical help. And finally, mail-order abortion pills also invite the horror of an increase in coerced abortions.”

The horror of increased coerced abortions was also a point made in a letter sent to Walgreens and CVS by the Family Research Council and 13 other pro-life organizations, who asked the chain not to sell abortion drugs in any state.

The letter to Walgreens and CVS were signed by Tony Perkins, president of FRC, and principals of other national pro-life organizations, including Susan B. Anthony Pro Life America, March for Life, National Right to Life Committee, and Students for Life Action, and Americans United for Life.

“Pharmacies are meant to be a place of healing, providing medications that sustain and strengthen life at all stages,” the letter said. “Chemical abortion drugs are not just another pill. Selling these drugs would transform these centers of healing into abortion facilities that kill children in their mothers’ wombs. Both employees and customers will be forced to recognize that any business done with a pharmacy that sells abortion drugs is, in fact, business done with an abortion facility.”