Walgreens’s effort at damage control this week appeared to leave no one satisfied as it continued to attract criticism from both sides of the abortion divide, a stark lesson in the dangers ahead for the multibillion-dollar chain drugstore industry that has been dragged headlong into the volatile issue.

Drugstores have faced criticism from various quarters for selling cigarettes and unhealthy snacks and for shifting policies over sales of birth control. But the conflagration over dispensing abortion pills eclipses those controversies in scale and poses a threat to drug chains’ relationships with consumers on both sides of the abortion debate, experts say.

The hashtag #boycottwalgreens has exploded on Twitter, fueled by abortion rights supporters who are angry over the pharmacy giant’s plans to refuse to dispense abortion pills in 21 states, including four states where abortion remains legal.

On the other side, antiabortion demonstrators disrupted the chain’s annual shareholder meeting and plan to continue protesting Walgreens for dispensing the drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol, anywhere. They are attempting to portray retail drugstores as a new version of abortion providers.

“It’s abortion politics in your neighborhood pharmacy. They brought this on themselves,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, an antiabortion group.

Walgreens scrambled to find a safe middle ground based on legal criteria. But that’s a delicate task on such a historically divisive issue, and as rapidly shifting state laws and rules remain in dispute or face court challenges in multiple jurisdictions.


“We want to be very clear about what our position has always been,” Walgreens posted on Twitter late Monday night, a bid to recalibrate its message after four days of blistering criticism and a threat by Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom to block Walgreens from receiving any state business. “Walgreens plans to dispense Mifepristone in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so.”

Observers were left to parse the company’s new statement for clues about how it will walk the tightrope between the job of selling approved medicines and adherence to state laws that could open up the company and its pharmacists to prosecution and lawsuits. Moreover, the gesture toward clarity seemed to be subsumed in the legal and political chaos that the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed last year when it upended the constitutional right to abortion that had been the law of the land for a half-century.

Walgreens triggered the latest controversy when, in response to a threatening letter signed by Republican state attorneys general, it said it would refrain from dispensing abortion pills in those states, including Kansas, Iowa, Montana and Alaska, where abortion remains legal. The other large drug chains, CVS and Rite Aid, have been less specific about their plans, stating they will dispense the pills where it is legally permitted.

The way this fight is playing out for drugstores is analogous to the way political fights in Florida over gay rights hurt Disney, said Daniel Korschun, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University. The legal and cultural issues companies face are now routinely seized upon by politicians seeking to make gains among their respective constituencies – Newsom in California, and Gov. Ron DeSantis in the case of Disney and Florida, he said.

Moreover, Walgreens, with annual sales of more than $130 billion, faces the danger of alienating some customers because the legal landscape is pushing it toward inconsistency – with different policies for different states, added Korschun, who has conducted research on consumer attitudes toward chain drugstores.

A customer in Texas may question why Walgreens does not sell abortion pills in Texas, for example, while it does sell them in neighboring New Mexico.


“That brings up these moral questions that can be very damaging to a brand,” Korschun said. “It’s a very difficult position to be in, but at the same time it’s become the cost of doing business in many industries.”

Social media has helped activists bring cultural and political feuds directly to the doorstep of major corporations. Republicans have recently taken to hunting down and publicizing examples of what they call “woke capitalism” throughout corporate America, including Wall Street. It’s hard to find any corner of the economy that is immune. In addition to health care and energy, there’s blowout cultural fights over tech, sports franchises, retailers and entertainment.

So it’s not surprising that an everyday business such as retail pharmacy can become a fulcrum for political division.

“Any company today has to understand that politics will somehow invade their business practices. It’s inevitable,” said Gary Sheffer, a professor of marketing and communications at Boston University.

Separating the noise from reality in the fight over chain drugstore rules is complicated by the blizzard of court fights, legislative initiatives, legal threats and competing interpretations of law. Iowa provides a good example. Walgreens said it would not dispense abortion drugs in Iowa – a state where abortion remains legal – but publicly has not provided a reason.

Iowa state law permits a pharmacy to dispense abortion drugs, said Sally Frank, a professor of law at Drake University in Des Moines. A recent initiative in the state legislature to ban abortion pills did not advance.


“There’s no reason (Walgreens) should have caved,” Frank said.

The state’s Republican attorney general, Brenna Bird, was among the Republican attorneys general who signed the letter to Walgreens warning of legal action if it dispensed pills in their states. The thrust of that letter was that an 1873 federal law called the Comstock Act prohibits sending anything that can induce an abortion through the U.S. mail system.

When the Biden administration, in a Jan. 3 order by the Food and Drug Administration, authorized pharmacies to dispense abortion pills, the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel issued an analysis saying the Comstock Act’s prohibition on shipping abortion pills would only apply if the shipper’s intent was to commit an illegal act. “The mere mailing of such drugs to a particular jurisdiction is an insufficient basis for concluding that the sender intends them to be used unlawfully,” the DOJ said.

If Walgreens opted not to dispense abortion pills in Iowa based on the Comstock Act, Frank said, that should apply nationwide, not just in the 20 states where GOP attorneys general objected to the Biden administration’s interpretation.

Another point of legal friction will be between states that have banned mifepristone, and the FDA, which approved it for use in abortions nationwide in 2000. A federal judge in Texas is poised to weigh in on the FDA’s approval in a case that could freeze access to the drug and lead to appeals over the reach of FDA authority.

Walgreens appears to be taking a cautious approach amid so much uncertainty, said Rachel Rebouche, dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law.

“This is such a dynamic and frankly confusing legal landscape,” she said, “that a lot is happening at the level of public opinion and messaging.”

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