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Walgreens, CVS to begin selling abortion pill in some states

Walgreens and CVS said they will start filling prescriptions for the abortion pill mifepristone in states where it is legally allowed, stepping into the culturally divisive battle over reproductive rights weeks before the Supreme Court is set to consider access to medication abortion.

Walgreens said it has completed the Food and Drug Administration’s certification process to sell mifepristone and expects to do so within a week. “We are beginning a phased rollout in select locations to ensure quality, safety and privacy for our patients, providers and team members,” the company said.

CVS said it is “working with manufacturers and suppliers to secure the medication and are not yet dispensing it in any of our pharmacies,” adding that it will begin filling prescriptions for the drug in Massachusetts and Rhode Island “in the weeks ahead and will expand to additional states, where allowed by law.”

The move by two of the nation’s largest pharmacy networks promises to expand the availability of the drug, which is the subject of litigation over whether the FDA properly approved it. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case this month.

The availability of medications to terminate pregnancy has taken on new importance since more than a dozen states have largely banned abortion following the high court’s 2022 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

“With major retail pharmacy chains newly certified to dispense medication abortion, many women will soon have the option to pick up their prescription at a local, certified pharmacy — just as they would for any other medication,” President Biden said in a statement. “I encourage all pharmacies that want to pursue this option to seek certification.”

The FDA modified its monitoring program for mifepristone in January 2023, allowing pharmacies to become certified to dispense the drug to patients with a prescription under certain conditions. Separately, telemedicine shield laws enacted in certain states have allowed for a pipeline of legally prescribed mifepristone to flow into other states with abortion bans.

Walgreens and CVS probably applied for FDA certification some time ago, said Katherine Kraschel, an assistant professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. Though she said their actions are significant, “the more impactful changes we’ve seen really come from putting mifepristone in the mail,” which enables the drug to reach more people.

Walgreens in particular has come under pressure from both sides of the abortion debate. The company infuriated supporters of abortion rights last year by saying it would not dispense abortion pills in 21 states, including four states where abortion is still legal. It also faced protests from antiabortion demonstrators objecting to Walgreens selling abortion pills at all.

A fragile new phase of abortion in America

CVS and Walgreens were criticized by antiabortion groups Friday over their decision to dispense mifepristone. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America called the pharmacies’ actions “shameful” and accused the Biden administration of “pushing to turn every pharmacy and post office in America into an abortion center for the sake of abortion industry greed.”

Danco Laboratories, which manufactures mifepristone under the brand Mifeprex, said Walgreens will be dispensing its pill. “We are also working with additional wholesalers to make Mifeprex available in certain certified pharmacies they service,” said Abby Long, a Danco spokesperson. She didn’t name them.

GenBioPro, maker of a generic version of mifepristone, said CVS will dispense its product. “We commend CVS and their commitment to women’s health,” CEO Evan Masingill said in a statement.

Mifepristone works by blocking a hormone that is necessary for a pregnancy to develop and is used in combination with another drug in more than half of all abortions in the nation. It was initially approved over 20 years ago by the FDA, which subsequently loosened regulations for obtaining it.

Last April, a ruling by a federal judge in Texas suspended mifepristone’s regulatory approval, siding with conservative groups seeking to reverse the FDA’s decision that the drug is safe and effective. It was the first time a judge had suspended a drug that had long been approved by the agency, which opposed the move.

States where abortion is legal, banned or under threat

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, who has long held antiabortion views, coincided with an opinion by a federal judge in Washington state that mifepristone should remain broadly available. The dueling opinions set the stage for appeals that appeared destined from the start to land at the nation’s highest court.

A federal appeals court ruled that access to mifepristone should be restricted, finding that the FDA shouldn’t have allowed it to be taken later in pregnancy or be mailed to patients.

The Biden administration and Danco Laboratories are asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. The justices agreed in December to hear the case, but they declined to consider a separate legal challenge to the FDA’s original approval of mifepristone, meaning the court won’t remove the drug from the market but could make it harder to access.

It will be the first time the Supreme Court takes up the polarizing issue of abortion rights since the conservative majority dismantled the federal right to abortion in 2022.

That decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, shifted the question of abortion access to states. The ruling enabled conservative states to impose new restrictions on abortion, and it has become a galvanizing issue for Democrats, playing a role in Republican defeats in recent elections in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia.

The question of a federal judge overriding the FDA has also fueled anxiety throughout the pharmaceutical industry, where companies invest hundreds of millions of dollars to win the agency’s approval to sell their drugs.

Should the FDA’s judgment be reversed, it could lead to other attempts to get a court to take an approved drug off the market, industry and former FDA officials have said.

Walgreens and CVS are unlikely to make much money by offering mifepristone, and the reaction from investors was muted. Walgreens’s share price rose 1 percent Friday, while CVS’s was down less than 1 percent.

Walgreens said Friday that it will begin dispensing mifepristone in certain locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California and Illinois. The company said it would not identify which pharmacies would carry the drug “in the interest of pharmacist and patient safety.”

CVS said its decision “follows the completion of a robust certification process and implementation of all FDA-required protocols for this medication.”

The steps by CVS and Walgreens put pressure on other larger pharmacy operators, with Democratic lawmakers calling on them to seek the FDA’s certification to dispense mifepristone.

Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Albertsons didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday.

News of CVS’s and Walgreens’s announcements was first reported by the New York Times.

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