CVS and Walgreens, two prominent pharmacy chains in the United States, have announced their intention to seek certification to sell abortion pills under a new regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This move marks a significant development as it will allow retail pharmacies to dispense the prescription pills, specifically mifepristone, for the first time.

While patients will still require a prescription from a certified healthcare provider, this federal action has the potential to expand access to medication abortion. Pharmacies that agree to accept prescriptions and adhere to certain criteria will be able to dispense the pills both in-store and through mail order, potentially broadening availability across various locations.

Although specific details regarding the timing and distribution methods have not been provided by the chains, CVS and Walgreens have stated their commitment to complying with state laws that either ban or restrict abortion, which currently applies to approximately half of the states in the country.

Amy Thibaut, a spokesperson for CVS, stated, “We plan to seek certification to dispense mifepristone where legally permissible.” Fraser Engerman, a representative from Walgreens, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “We intend to become a certified pharmacy under the program. We are working through the registration, necessary training of our pharmacists, as well as evaluating our pharmacy network in terms of where we normally dispense products that have extra FDA requirements and will dispense these consistent with federal and state laws.”

Abortion pills, which are already utilized in over half of pregnancy terminations in the United States, have gained increased attention following last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning the federal right to abortion. With conservative states implementing bans or stringent restrictions on abortion, these pills have become central in political and legal debates. The decision by CVS and Walgreens to offer these pills may position them as focal points in the ongoing divisive abortion discourse in the country.

The American Pharmacists Association has voiced its support for the FDA’s decision, urging the agency to allow any pharmacy that chooses to dispense mifepristone to become certified. The association’s interim CEO, Ilisa Bernstein, emphasized that while she is unsure how many pharmacies will opt to dispense mifepristone, the organization appreciates the increased access to an FDA-approved drug. Bernstein also acknowledged that pharmacies would exercise caution when deciding whether to offer the pills in states with abortion bans or restrictions, as they would not want to jeopardize their licenses.

The process for pharmacies to become certified to dispense mifepristone entails administrative requirements beyond those typically associated with other medications. This includes designating an employee responsible for ensuring compliance. Confidentiality is another crucial aspect, with pharmacies required to keep the names of certified health providers who prescribe mifepristone confidential to protect their privacy and safety. This may pose logistical challenges for larger chains like CVS and Walgreens, as they must restrict access to such information within individual stores rather than maintaining a companywide database.

Mifepristone, the first pill used in the two-drug medication abortion regimen, blocks a hormone necessary for pregnancy development. The FDA authorizes its use within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, but many clinics and telemedicine providers have extended its usage to 12 or 13 weeks based on medical discretion. Misoprostol, the second drug in the regimen, is less restricted and is commonly used for various medical conditions. It can be easily obtained at pharmacies through a standard prescription process and is taken 24 to 48 hours after mifepristone to induce contractions that expel pregnancy tissue.

While mifepristone is currently approved only for abortion, it is also utilized in the treatment of certain miscarriages. Advocacy groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association, have petitioned the FDA to ease restrictions on mifepristone’s use for miscarriages, highlighting the need for action in this area.