July 25, 2024 2:56 pm
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National News

CVS and Walgreens will start selling abortion pills this month


Shefali Luthra, The 19th

This story was originally published by The 19th.

CVS and Walgreens will start dispensing mifepristone, one of the medications used to induce an abortion, in stores this month.

The news was first reported by The New York Times. It comes more than a year after both retail pharmacy chains, the nation’s two largest, said they would pursue certification from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to dispense the pill. 

Mifepristone can be used in conjunction with another medication, misoprostol, to induce an abortion at home. A vast body of research shows it is safe and highly effective, particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy. Patients seeking mifepristone need a prescription from a medical provider. Misoprostol is already available in pharmacies for patients with a prescription.

The chains will start dispensing mifepristone in a few states: CVS in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and Walgreens in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. Eventually, both pharmacies will make it available in all states where abortion is legal and where they are permitted to do so. Neither chain will dispense the pill through the mail. 

CVS pharmacies will begin filling prescriptions “in the weeks ahead,” said Amy Thibault, a company spokesperson. Walgreens anticipates beginning to dispense mifepristone in the next week, per spokesperson Fraser Engerman.

Mifepristone received FDA approval more than 20 years ago, but the ability to dispense it has been tightly regulated — regulations stemming, physicians and researchers have said, from the political controversy associated with making the pill available. For years, the drug had to be dispensed in person and under the supervision of a specially certified clinician. But in recent years, regulators have pushed to make the drug more available. 

In December 2021, the FDA allowed specialty pharmacies to disperse mifepristone over mail. And in January 2023, the FDA issued guidance that would allow brick-and-mortar pharmacies to provide the medication. Medical organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists had long called for the change, noting the large body of medical evidence showing the drug’s safety.

Medication abortions make up the majority of pregnancy terminations performed in the United States. 

Since Roe v. Wade’s fall, medication abortion has emerged as a top target for the anti-abortion movement. Abortion opponents have pushed for laws restricting its use, in particular the option for it to be provided through the mail. The U.S. Supreme Court this month will hear a case challenging mifepristone’s availability.

The case, filed in Texas, originally explored whether the drug should be taken off the market completely. But the high court is instead weighing a narrower set of questions: whether to block the 2016 FDA decision that allowed doctors to prescribe it virtually and that expanded approval of the drug from use in the first seven weeks of pregnancy to the first 10. 

If the drug is approved for only the first seven weeks of pregnancy, doctors could still recommend it past that point, through what’s called an “off-label” prescription. But there would be no such workaround for a decision rescinding the federal telemedicine approval. Meanwhile, evidence shows that more Americans are relying on a virtual option: a study released this week found that about 16 percent of abortions performed in the fall of 2023 were done via telemedicine.

President Joe Biden applauded the decision by CVS and Walgreens, saying in a statement that he encourages other pharmacies to get certified to distribute mifepristone in stores and that the administration would defend the FDA’s ability to regulate the drug.