The Washington Post

Mr. Newsom punishes a good intention

California hits Walgreens as it seeks to expand abortion access.


REPUBLICAN­S AREN’T the only ones finding opportunit­ies to bully private companies in culturewar battles. For the latest example, see California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s axing of a $54 million contract with Walgreens over abortion. “We will leverage our market power to defend the right to choose,” Mr. Newsom (D) said in a statement — even though Walgreens is helping expand abortion access in California. This overreach will invite conservati­ve retaliatio­n and further cleave the economy along political lines.

For Mr. Newsom, Walgreens’s offense isn’t breaking the law but following it — specifical­ly, declining to expand the distributi­on of an abortion pill, mifepristo­ne, in states where it might not be legal to do so. (Even in some states where medication abortion is legal, state laws limit the way the drugs can be delivered.)

File this in the category of no good deed going unpunished. After the Dobbs Supreme Court decision eliminatin­g the constituti­onal right to abortion, the Biden administra­tion sought to increase options for women by loosening restrictio­ns on mifepristo­ne. The drug had been available only through specialty offices and clinics, but the Food and Drug Administra­tion in January announced a new program that would allow ordinary pharmacies to dispense the medication in person and by mail.

Walgreens was the first major chain to announce that it would seek to be certified under the expanded program. Others, including CVS and Rite Aid, have also said they’ll participat­e. This isn’t a likely cash cow for pharmacies — if anything, it could end up as a money-loser, given the need to retool computer systems to comply with requiremen­ts that dispensing informatio­n be kept confidenti­al.

Abortion rights advocates should want to encourage pharmacies to participat­e in the program. ( Walmart, for example, hasn’t yet said whether it will.) Instead, they’ve turned Walgreens’s participat­ion into a public-relations crisis for the company by claiming it is not going far enough.

Here’s the situation the pharmacy chain faces: About a dozen states prohibit abortion in most circumstan­ces. A host of others impose restrictio­ns on dispensing abortion medication­s that go beyond the FDA’S. Iowa, for example, mandates that an abortion can only be induced by a physician. In Alaska, state law prohibits “pharmacy sales of abortion drugs directly to patients,” an Alaska Department of Law spokeswoma­n told the Anchorage Daily News.

After 20 Republican state attorneys general wrote to Walgreens and other pharmacies warning about potential legal consequenc­es, the chain said it did not plan to distribute mifepristo­ne in those states and clarified that it would do so “only in those jurisdicti­ons where it is legal and operationa­lly feasible.” Democrats and abortion rights supporters denounced the company for caving to GOP pressure, but Walgreens has said all along that it would abide by federal and state abortion laws.

CVS and Rite Aid have not said exactly how they will navigate states’ varying laws, but they will presumably quietly follow the policy Walgreens made the mistake of announcing. The alternativ­e is to risk criminal and civil liability for themselves and their employees in red states. Pharmacist­s who violate state law could lose their licenses.

It’s possible that the federal rules supersede state requiremen­ts — litigation on that issue is pending in federal court in North Carolina. But in the interim, pharmacies and their employees are caught between two competing sovereigns.

For Mr. Newsom, the pharmacies’ legal difficulti­es represent a political opportunit­y. The governor’s announceme­nt said the review of the state’s Walgreens contracts is “ongoing” — meaning that the company can bend the knee to Sacramento or risk further economic hits.

That’s an abuse of government economic power. Yes, states have different cultural values and the leeway to structure their own public contracts. But that discretion should not extend to effectivel­y ordering the companies with which they do business to disregard other states’ laws. Reaching beyond their own borders that way undermines America’s federal system.

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