Walgreens won't sell abortion pills in GOP states after legal threats from state officials; California won't renew contract

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Bloomberg, not The Boston Globe, first reported the news about Gov. Newsom's response. 

Walgreens will not dispense abortion pills in nearly two dozen states after legal threats from GOP lawmakers, the retail pharmacy chain confirmed.

The company's decision was originally reported by Politico on Thursday. The Walgreens decision stems from a letter written by nearly two dozen (PDF) Republican state attorneys general at the beginning of February that threatened legal action if the company began distributing mifepristone in their states.

Walgreens, the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain, confirmed the decision to Fierce Healthcare on Friday, with a spokesperson saying “we are not distributing mifepristone at this time. We intend to be a certified pharmacy and will distribute mifepristone only in those jurisdictions where it is legal and operationally feasible.” 

Walgreens told Politico it will not dispense abortion pills in the states by mail or at their retail locations. The states are: Missouri, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. The list includes several states where abortion remains legal. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom denounced the retailer's decision, saying the state was "done" and directing the state health department to review all California contracts with Walgreens, Bloomberg first reported. 

On Wednesday, California withdrew a planned renewal of a contract with the retailer. The contract was for Walgreens to purchase specialty drugs, primarily for the state's prison healthcare system and was set to expire at the end of April.

Instead, Newsom said the state will look for the services elsewhere. To date, Walgreens got about $54 million from California.

“California will not stand by as corporations cave to extremists and cut off critical access to reproductive care and freedom,” Newsom said in a news release. “California is on track to be the fourth largest economy in the world and we will leverage our market power to defend the right to choose.”

A Walgreens spokesperson told the Associated Press, “Our position has always been that, once we are certified by the FDA, Walgreens plans to dispense Mifepristone in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so, including the state of California.”

The Biden administration said it would allow retail pharmacies to dispense the pills in January, with several chains announcing they would jump at the opportunity. Walgreens is not yet distributing abortion pills in any part of the country and is working to obtain certification to do so in certain states. 

“In my letter to Walgreens, we made clear that Kansas will not hesitate to enforce the laws against mailing and dispensing abortion pills, including bringing a RICO action to enforce the federal law prohibiting the mailing of abortion pills,” Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach said in a statement to Politico. “Evidently, Walgreens understood that my office was serious about this. I’m grateful that Walgreens responded quickly and reasonably and intends to comply with the relevant laws.”

The Biden administration Friday called Republican efforts to dissuade pharmacies from distributing abortion pills “dangerous and just unacceptable," Politico reported.

"This is all a part of a continued effort by anti-abortion extremists who want to use this arcane law to impose a backdoor ban on abortion,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at the White House daily briefing, according to Politico.

The latest decision highlights how easily abortion can be curbed—even in states where it remains legal—simply by threats and political influence. Even the idea of abortion procedures being illegal is enough to deter some physicians from providing the care, advocates have cautioned. 

Politico reported the group of Republican attorneys general also reached out to CVS, Albertsons, Rite Aid, Costco, Walmart and Kroger with the demand that they refuse to dispense the medication. 

In a statement to Fierce Healthcare, a Rite Aid spokesperson said the company is "monitoring the latest federal, state, legal and regulatory developments regarding mifepristone dispensing."

"We will continue to evaluate the company’s ability to dispense mifepristone in accordance with those developments," the Rite Aid spokesperson said.

CVS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Editor's note: This story was updated March 6, 2023, at 4:45 p.m. ET to include California's decision to cut ties with the retailer.