The two largest pharmacy chains in the United States will start dispensing the abortion pill mifepristone this month, a step that could make access easier for some patients.


By Pam Belluck

March 1, 2024Updated 1:37 p.m. ET

Officials at CVS and Walgreens said in interviews on Friday that they had received certification to dispense mifepristone under guidelines that the Food and Drug Administration issued last year. The chains plan to make the medication available in stores in a handful of states at first. They will not be providing the medication by mail.

Both chains said they would gradually expand to all other states where abortion was legal and where pharmacies were legally able to dispense abortion pills — about half of the states.

President Biden said in a statement on Friday that the availability of the pill at pharmacies was “an important milestone in ensuring access to mifepristone, a drug that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective for more than 20 years.”

“I encourage all pharmacies that want to pursue this option to seek certification,” he added.

Walgreens will start providing the pill within the next week in a small number of its pharmacies in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California and Illinois, said Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for the chain. “We are beginning a phased rollout in select locations to allow us to ensure quality, safety and privacy for our patients, providers and team members,” he said.

CVS will begin dispensing in all of its pharmacies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island “in the weeks ahead,” Amy Thibault, a spokeswoman for the company, said.

The chains will be monitoring the prospects in a few states, including Kansas, Montana and Wyoming, where abortion bans or strict limitations have been enacted but are enjoined because of legal challenges.

Mr. Engerman said that Walgreens was “not going to dispense in states where the laws are unclear” to protect its pharmacists and staff members.

As for CVS, “we continually monitor and evaluate changes in state laws and will dispense mifepristone in any state where it is or becomes legally permissible to do so,” Ms. Thibault said. In some states where abortion is legal, she said, pharmacists are prohibited from dispensing mifepristone because laws require that to be done by doctors or in a hospital or clinic.

It is uncertain how much initial demand there will be for the service at brick-and-mortar pharmacies. In the states where the chains will begin dispensing, abortion pills are already available in clinics or easily prescribed through telemedicine and sent through the mail. But some women prefer to visit doctors, many of whom do not have the medication on hand. The new development will allow doctors and other eligible providers to send a prescription to a pharmacy for the patient to pick up.

“Now that doctors no longer have to stock the medicine themselves and dispense it, it increases the likelihood that a patient can go to their own doctor, the person with whom they already have a relationship, and say, ‘I’m pregnant — I don’t want to be,’” said Kirsten Moore, the director of the Expanding Medication Abortion Access Project.

She said it might also motivate more doctors and other health providers to obtain the special certification that the F.D.A. requires for prescribers of mifepristone. The steps to becoming a certified prescriber are simple, but some doctors have been deterred because of the paperwork and logistics of having to order and stock the pills.

As the availability in retail pharmacies expands, they may become a more popular alternative, and depending on the outcome of a case the Supreme Court will hear later this month, the pharmacy option could take on more importance.

In that case, abortion opponents have sued the F.D.A., seeking to remove mifepristone from the market in the United States. An appeals court ruling in that case did not go that far but effectively banned the mailing of mifepristone and required in-person doctor visits. If the Supreme Court upholds that ruling, it could mean that patients would have to obtain mifepristone by visiting a clinic or doctor. If such a ruling allowed pharmacies to continue dispensing, more patients might obtain the medication there.

Abortion opponents criticized the pharmacy chains’ decision. “As two of the world’s largest, most trusted ‘health’ brands, the decision by CVS and Walgreens to sell dangerous abortion drugs is shameful, and the harm to unborn babies and their mothers incalculable,” Katie Daniel, the state policy director of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement.

In order to obtain certification, the pharmacy chains had to take specific steps, including ensuring that their computerized systems protected the privacy of prescribers, who are certified under a special program that the F.D.A. applies to mifepristone and several dozen other medications.

Pharmacy certification is granted by manufacturers of mifepristone. Walgreens was certified by the brand name manufacturer Danco Laboratories, and is seeking certification from the generic manufacturer GenBioPro, Mr. Engerman said. CVS was certified by GenBioPro.

Medication abortion is a two-drug regimen that is now the most common method of terminating pregnancies in the United States and is typically used through 12 weeks of pregnancy. Mifepristone, which blocks a hormone necessary for pregnancy development, is taken first, followed 24 to 48 hours later by misoprostol, which causes contractions that expel pregnancy tissue.

The same regimen is also used for miscarriages, and those patients can now also obtain mifepristone from the pharmacy chains.

Mifepristone has been tightly regulated by the F.D.A. since its approval in 2000. It had previously been available primarily from the prescribers or from clinics or telemedicine abortion services, in which the pills were generally shipped from one of two mail-order pharmacies that were authorized. Misoprostol has never been as tightly restricted as mifepristone and is used for many different medical conditions. It is easily obtained at pharmacies through a typical prescription process.

The American Pharmacists Association urged the F.D.A. to allow retail pharmacies to distribute mifepristone, even though the medication is unlikely to generate significant revenue. In a statement last year, the association said that it wanted the agency “to level the playing field by permitting any pharmacy that chooses to dispense this product to become certified.”

Shortly after the F.D.A. policy change was announced in January 2023, Walgreens and CVS said they planned to become certified and offer mifepristone in states where laws would allow pharmacies to dispense it.

Walgreens later became the focus of a consumer and political firestorm after it responded to threatening letters from Republican attorneys general in 21 states, confirming that it would not dispense the medication in those states.

Both chains have had protests outside their stores, mostly from anti-abortion advocates, and similar protesters interrupted a meeting of shareholders at Walgreens Boots Alliance, the chain’s parent company.

CVS is the nation’s largest chain with over 9,000 stores in all 50 states. Walgreens has about 8,500 stores in all states except North Dakota. Neither chain would discuss the price of the medication, but both noted that some insurance policies would cover it in some states.

handful of small independent pharmacies began dispensing mifepristone last year.

Pam Belluck is a health and science reporter, covering a range of subjects, including reproductive health, long Covid, brain science, neurological disorders, mental health and genetics.More about Pam Belluck

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