Five Alaska senators and 15 Alaska House members this week signed a letter to Walgreens’ chief executive in response to the company’s announcement it would not carry a drug used in medication abortions in its Alaska drugstores.
Walgreens’ decision came after Attorney General Treg Taylor last month signed on to letters sent to executives at several drugstores — including Walgreens — urging the companies not to follow new regulations by the Food and Drug Administration allowing them to dispense mifepristone in their stores and by-mail.
In response to the letter signed by Taylor and 19 other Republican attorneys general, Walgreens announced it would not seek approval to carry the drug in any of those states. That included several states where abortion access and medication abortions remain legal, Alaska among them. Walgreens executives said they would continue seeking approval to carry the drug in other states.
Several Alaska Democrats and independents responded to the decision by signing a letter of their own to Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer, in which they say Taylor was exerting “inappropriate pressure” as attorney general to try to sway drugstore companies despite protections for abortion access enshrined in Alaska’s constitution. A once-a-decade question last year on whether to hold a constitutional convention failed resoundingly, with 70% of voters opposed. Lawmakers said in the letter that was an indication of broad support for protecting abortion access in the state.
“No company should willingly eliminate access to lifesaving medication in response to political demands of a few attorneys general, particularly when the action directly undermines constitutional rights in our state,” the lawmakers wrote.
Signatories on the letter include five Democratic members of the bipartisan Senate majority. Leaders of that caucus said this year they intended to steer clear of divisive issues, including abortion access, during the ongoing legislative session. Some members of the majority, including Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, oppose abortion access but have committed to upholding the Alaska constitution’s protections for the procedure.
Of the 15 House members who signed the letter, all but one are members of the minority. Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, is the only majority caucus member who signed the letter.
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, said the letter came together quickly in response to “a lot of anger among many elected officials that an attorney general who’s charged with upholding our constitution is working with a bunch of Outside people, encouraging companies to undercut Alaskans’ constitutionally protected rights.”
Fields said he hopes the lawmakers’ letter will help ensure that other drugstore companies don’t follow suit.
“These companies need to understand the broad public support for that. Walgreens is not the last one that’s going to be making that decision,” said Fields. “Frankly, I’m sure that Walgreens made this decision out of ignorance over Alaska. I think we’ve seen that a lot with large multinational companies that — their thinking is maybe Washington, D.C., centrist or Lower 48-centric, but they need to understand the Alaska dynamic.”
Walgreens representatives did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement on social media, Walgreens said it plans to dispense mifepristone “in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so.” But in a letter to Taylor, Walgreens Executive Vice President Danielle Gray wrote that “Walgreens does not intend to dispense mifepristone within your state.”
In response to several questions directed to Taylor, Alaska Department of Law spokesperson Patty Sullivan said that an existing state statute requiring that only licensed physicians perform abortions “prohibit(s) pharmacy sales of abortion drugs directly to patients.” But the statute does not reference medication abortion or limit where the medication can be taken.
“Abortion is legal in Alaska and is constitutionally protected, but that doesn’t keep it from being regulated,” Sullivan said.
The FDA’s new regulations, released earlier this year, allowed pharmacies to apply to begin dispensing mifepristone, one of two drugs used in medication abortions. The other drug is already available in pharmacies. Several pharmacies other than Walgreens have indicated they intend to seek approval for dispensing mifepristone.
However, a lawsuit in a federal court in Texas seeks to make mifepristone unavailable nationwide. A decision on the case is expected soon. Alaska has joined other states seeking to overturn the FDA regulations.
In the meantime, Alaska patients seeking medication abortions, which make up around one-third of abortions in the state, are largely dependent on Planned Parenthood’s clinics in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.
Rose O’Hara-Jolley, Alaska state director for Planned Parenthood, said Walgreens’ decision not to carry mifepristone in Alaska does not change current abortion access in the state because patients can still only receive the drug in clinics. Several pharmacies have applied to dispense the drug in Alaska and are still in the midst of the approval process.
While Taylor signed on to numerous letters urging other pharmacies not to follow the new FDA regulations regarding mifepristone, the Department of Law has not received any responses from other pharmacies indicating they intend to limit access to the drug in Alaska, Sullivan said Tuesday.
[Read the letter:]