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How Walgreens supports the anti-abortion movement
Walgreens, one of the nation's largest pharmacy chains, announced that it will not dispense abortion pills in at least 10 states where abortion remains legal. The decision came in response to a letter from 20 state attorneys general who oppose abortion rights, encouraging Walgreens not to make the drugs available in their states. Walgreens' decision is part of a pattern of support for anti-abortion officials, including significant donations to officials seeking to ban or dramatically restrict abortion.
In 2019, for example, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution protects abortion rights. The court found that the Kansas Bill of Rights "affords protection of the right of personal autonomy, which includes the ability to control one's own body." That right "allows a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body, health, family formation, and family life — decisions that can include whether to continue a pregnancy."
In response, anti-abortion activists in Kansas introduced a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to remove abortion rights. That amendment was defeated in a landslide vote in 2022, with 60% of Kansans choosing to preserve abortion rights.
Then, on February 1, 2023, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach (R) — who unsuccessfully ran for governor on a pledge to make Kansas "the most pro-life state in the country" — signed the letter urging Walgreens and other major pharmacies not to dispense Mifepristone, a pill that is used to safely terminate pregnancies. Walgreens responded to Kobach on February 17, assuring him that "Walgreens does not intend to dispense Mifepristone within your state and does not intend to ship Mifepristone into your state from any of our pharmacies."
The letter, signed by Kobach and the other Republican attorneys general, provides no justification for Walgreens' decision. Most of the letter is a discussion of the Comstock Act, an 1873 law that has been ignored or limited by federal courts for decades. The Comstock Act "made it illegal to send 'obscene, lewd or lascivious,' 'immoral,' or 'indecent' publications through the mail."
It is named after Anthony Comstock who was the "head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice." Comstock famously arrested Ezra Heywood for mailing a copy of "Cupid’s Yokes, in which [Heywood] asserted that women should have the right to control their own bodies" because Comstock considered it obscene.
The Comstock Act also purports to make it illegal to "mail" a drug that "is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for producing abortion." In December 2022, the Department of Justice issued an opinion concluding the Comstock Act "does not prohibit the mailing of certain drugs that can be used to perform abortions where the sender lacks the intent that the recipient of the drugs will use them unlawfully." The Department of Justice relies on a century of legal interpretation wherein "the Judiciary, Congress, and USPS have all settled upon an understanding of the reach of section 1461 and the related provisions of the Comstock Act that is narrower than a literal reading might suggest."
But even if the interpretation of the Comstock Act by the Republican attorneys general was correct, it would not prohibit Walgreens from distributing Mifepristone in Kansas or any other state where abortion remains legal. Walgreens has more than 8,800 stores and has its own distribution system — it does not principally rely on the postal service to stock its pharmacies.
Family Research Council, Students for Life, and numerous other anti-aboriton groups sent a similar letter to Walgreens on January 20, 2023. These groups stressed "the novelty of the regulatory and legal environment that we face in a post-Roe v. Wade America" and warned that if Walgreens dispensed abortion it will be dragged "into a legal thicket with potential criminal legal consequences."
These threats appear to have worked. Walgreens now says there is "complexity and flux" around the law in Kansas and nine states represented by Republican attorneys general where abortion remains legal. Therefore, it will not dispense Mifepristone in Kansas, Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Montana, Indiana, Ohio, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Utah.
Other major pharmacy chains, which received the same letter from Republican attorneys general, have taken a more circumspect approach. CVS says it will dispense Misfepristone wherever it's "legally permissible." Rite Aid said it was "monitoring the latest federal, state, legal and regulatory developments." Other major operators of pharmacies, including Kroger, Walmart, Albertsons, and Costco, have not commented publicly.
Walgreens' decision significantly restricts and complicates abortion access in these states. Mifepristone, which is used in combination with misoprostol, now accounts for the majority of abortions in the United States.
The anti-abortion groups celebrated Walgreens' announcement as a significant victory. "This response indicates that pro-life concerns are being heard and that corporations are not rushing to take over the abortion business," Kristi Hamrick, a spokesperson for Students for Life said.
Walgreens' financial support for politicians pushing to ban abortion
Walgreens has sought to cultivate a public image as a supporter of abortion rights. Following the Supreme Court's decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs, Walgreens announced it would reimburse "its workers for travel expenses if they have to venture more than 50 miles for an abortion."
In a statement, the company said that abortion was part of "comprehensive access" to health care for its employees. Maintaining that access, Walgreens said, was part of the "core principles that drive how we operate and make decisions as an organization."
But Walgreens has also made the decision to financially support politicians seeking to restrict or ban abortion nationwide.
All 20 signatories of the letter to Walgreens are members of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). RAGA, by its own admission, played a central role in Dobbs. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch (R), a member of RAGA and one of the signatories of the letter to Walgreens, was in charge of the legal strategy to eliminate the constitutional right to an abortion.
In June 2022, RAGA sent a fundraising solicitation pledging that future donations would be used to further undermine abortion rights across the country. "These battles to protect the unborn will now take place at the state level, where the courageous conservative leadership of Republican Attorneys General has never been more critical," the email says. "Every donation will help Republican Attorneys General combat the Democrats' pro-abortion agenda and stand tall for life."
A few months later, on October 4, 2022, Walgreens donated $25,000 to RAGA, according to IRS records reviewed by Popular Information. Since 2020, Walgreens has donated $80,030 to RAGA.
During the last election cycle, Walgreens also donated $123,500 to 39 members of Congress who received a failing grade (25% or lower) in the latest scorecard from NARAL Pro-Choice America. This group includes 12 co-sponsors of the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2021, a bill that would ban abortion nationwide after 6 weeks — before many women know they are pregnant.