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Walgreens Caves to Republicans, Limits Sales of Another Reproductive Healthcare Item

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Dammit, Walgreens, this is why we can’t have nice things.

And by “nice things,” I mean things that are essential to reproductive health. Ever since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the the reproductive health of tens of millions of people has been in jeopardy. While many are still reeling from the decision, Walgreens appears to be eager to show their support. Even in places where abortion remains legal.

How is Walgreens

Republican Senators across the country have written to Walgreens demanding that the store discontinue sale of its abortion pills—even in states where abortion has not been made illegal. The pills are the nation’s most popular choice for ending a pregnancy, and will become more difficult to obtain in the coming months. In an effort to remain out of legal hot water, the company announced that it will not be stocking the pills at any of its brick and mortar locations within certain states. The purchase of said pills will also not be possible online, even though in many of these states it is still legal to do so.

As of now, the company is not distributing these pills anywhere in the country. However, they are currently looking for certification to do so in some states. They have declined to say which states, likely in an effort to avoid further conservative ire. According to E. Michael Murphy, a government advisor at the American Pharmacists Association, there are “blatant contradictions” between state and federal laws regarding abortion pill access that make it “challenging to identify what is legal and what is not legal.”

Republicans are erring on the side of “illegal.” In response to the Biden administration’s move to allow pharmacies to sell the pills as part of a nationwide effort to expand abortion access, a group of Republican attorneys general have written letters to CVS, Rite Aid, Walmart, and numerous other pharmacy chains demanding that they refuse to sell the medication. According to their interpretation, the Biden administration is circumventing laws around dispensing and mailing abortion pills. “In my letter to Walgreens, we made clear that Kansas will not hesitate to enforce the laws against mailing and dispensing abortion pills, including bringing a RICO action to enforce the federal law prohibiting the mailing of abortion pills,” said Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach in a statement. He went on to say that he was “grateful” that the store “intends to comply with the relevant laws.” But in Kansas, those laws are especially complex. The Kansas law that bans patients from obtaining the pills from anyone but a physician is currently blocked in court.

Anti-abortion groups around the nation are resorting to similar scare tactics against Walgreens and other pharmacies. They are currently mounting a nationwide campaign against the sale of abortion pills, and intend to picket outside of dozens of pharmacies in the coming weeks. Other groups have written to Walgreens and CVS threatening “legal ramifications” should the companies not comply with their demands. A spokesperson for the anti-abortion group Students For Life (a name that makes it sound like none of them will ever graduate high school) applauded Walgreens’ decision to limit sales of the pills, saying they were thrilled that “pro-life concerns are being heard” by corporations. Oh, they hear them. We all do. You people never shut up.

This isn’t the first time Walgreens has limited sales of reproductive health products

Employees have also done so on religious grounds.

A couple in Wisconsin attempted to buy condoms from a Walgreens location, but an employee refused the sale due to his religious beliefs. Evidently, he’s trying to take the “sin” out of Wisconsin. (I wonder how that’s going for him.) The employee instead had to get a manager to complete the sale. The couple quickly took to Twitter to spread the word about the experience, which blew up online. Walgreens later made a statement to NBC news, stating that the employee’s actions were not against company policy. “Our policies are designed to ensure we meet the needs of our patients and customers while respecting the religious and moral beliefs of our team members,” said a spokesperson for Walgreens. “The instances are rare, however when a team member has a moral or religious conviction about completing a transaction, they are required to refer the customer to another employee or manager on duty who will complete the transaction, which is what occurred in this instance.”

While this sounds like a slap in the face to the separation of church and state, the company did not act illegally. According to the Associated Press, employees are entitled to act in accordance with their religious beliefs by virtue of the Title VII laws in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, their actions are not protected if they cause an “undue burden” for their employer. It sure sounds like an “undue burden” if Elder Thomas has to tap his manager on the shoulder every time some teenagers want to buy a pack of Trojans, but apparently this is not the case. According to Merrick Rossein, a law professor at the City University of New York, “undue burden” is a tricky thing to establish. It depends partly on where the store is located. If an employee refuses to sell condoms in a big city, a person could conceivably go to another pharmacy in the area. That would be annoying as hell, but apparently not illegal. However, if said Walgreens is located in a middle-of-nowhere town in the Bible Belt where it’s the only pharmacy and an employee decides to pull that stunt, it could be considered an “undue burden” because it effectively makes it impossible to purchase contraceptive products. The burden would be compounded if the store had only one or two employees, and Elder Thomas is one of them.

Pro-choice advocates are worried that the unclear legal nature of contraceptive sales will cause people to think that access to such products is impossible. In a post-Roe America, this is grounds for serious concern. “We know a lot of people are confused about what the Dobbs case meant and I think there are people who have questions about what the impact on birth control was,” says Mara Gandal-Powers, a director of birth control access at National Women’s Law Center. She stresses that the “Dobbs case”—the case responsible for overturning Roe—”did not impact people’s ability to get birth control today.” However, Gandal-Powers remains fearful that people will stop seeking contraceptive products should employees be allowed to refuse to sell them. And if Elder Thomas stays behind the pharmacy counter, that’s going to continue to be the case.

(featured image: Michael M. Santiago, Getty Images)

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