WASHINGTON – One of the best-known names on the UK high street is at risk of being drawn into America’s polarised abortion debate as its parent company is now in the eye of a furious political storm.
Walgreens, owner of Boots since 2014, is facing calls for a consumer boycott after last week announcing that it will no longer dispense the abortion pill Mifepristone in more than 20 states where Republican officials say they could prosecute the company for facilitating the procedure.
In many of those states, particularly in the American South, Republicans have moved quickly to restrict or outlaw a woman’s right to choose following last year’s US Supreme Court decision striking down Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that kept abortion legal across America for half a century. Walgreens’ decision followed a letter signed by attorney generals from 21 separate states threatening the company with the possibility of legal action.
But the federal government’s Food and Drug Administration disagrees with the Republicans’ position and says retailers across the US can continue to sell Mifepristone in person and by post, providing they follow a certification procedure that creates standards for shipping and tracking the pills.
Mifepristone – which is also available in the UK – was approved for use to end pregnancies in the US more than 20 years ago. In light of last year’s Supreme Court ruling and the crackdown on abortion that followed, pills are now believed to be responsible for more than half the abortions taking place in America.
Walgreens is America’s second-largest chain of pharmacies, and its corporate parent was renamed Walgreens Boots Alliance following the Boots acquisition. It finds itself caught in the headlights of the country’s battle over abortion. Governor Gavin Newsom of California, a prominent Democrat and vocal defender of abortion rights, swiftly terminated his state’s business dealings with Walgreens. “California won’t be doing business with … any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women’s lives at risk,” he thundered on Twitter.
Film director Michael Moore went further, demanding a consumer boycott of the company. He said in a post online that it “stands with anti-abortion extremists against the rights of women” and argued that Walgreens’ decision “must be met forcefully by each and every one of us”.
In a statement released on Monday, Walgreens insisted that it “plans to dispense Mifepristone in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so” and indicated that after securing FDA certification it will dispense the pill “consistent with federal and state laws”.
But the White House is accusing the company of caving in to the mere threat of legal action in some states where the pill remains entirely legal.
In Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and Montana there are no laws against its use, even though the attorney generals from those states co-signed the letter that prompted Walgreens’ initial action. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the company’s move “unacceptable and dangerous”.
By contrast, some Republicans have showered praise on the retailer. Last week, former Vice President Mike Pence told participants in a “Students for Life” event in Florida that “Americans don’t want their pharmacies to become abortion facilities … I commend Walgreens for yielding to the rule of law”. However, some anti-abortion activists are threatening a boycott of their own to protest the company’s decision to continue selling abortion pills in the 29 states that did not legally threaten the Illinois-based behemoth.
Shares in Walgreens Boots Alliance have been punished. On Tuesday, the company lost 3.7 per cent of its value on the Nasdaq and it was down 6.6 per cent over the last month. With #BoycottWalgreens trending on social media and awareness of the issue growing internationally, the controversy comes days before the company is due to unveil its second quarter earnings.
The row risks going global, with Boots a secondary potential target of consumers’ ire. Named after founder John Boot who opened the business in 1849, the UK chain’s corporate identity is embedded in the Walgreens’ website.
Boots is no stranger to controversy. In 2017, the retailer faced boycott calls for saying it would not cut the price of the morning after pill, fearing that emergency contraception might become “misused or overused”. Under fire, Boots said it was “truly sorry for our poor choice of words” and acknowledged it had “caused offence and misunderstanding”.
Its parent company now faces a growing number of reports questioning its broader handling of Walgreens’ customers legally seeking access to abortion and emergency contraception medications.