Demonstrators protest the sale of mifepristone outside of Walgreens in Soldotna on Tuesday, March 27, 2024 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Anti-abortion activists protest outside Soldotna Walgreens

The actions come as the Supreme Court weighs restrictions to mifepristone distribution

As the U.S. Supreme Court debates whether to restrict access to one of two pills used in medical abortions, a local pro-life group took to the streets Tuesday to voice their opposition to Walgreens filling prescriptions for the drug.

The company denies it is dispensing the drug in Alaska, but protesters believe otherwise.

The Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit that seeks to restrict access to mifepristone, one half of a medicine series used to end a pregnancy through 10 weeks of gestation by blocking the hormone needed for a pregnancy to continue. Mifepristone must be taken in addition to misoprostol to end a pregnancy.

Protesters affiliated with a Kenai Peninsula pro-life group have demonstrated outside of the Walgreens’ location multiple times in recent months, alleging that the pharmacy will fill mifepristone prescriptions even though the company has said it will not dispense the pill in Alaska.

Rebecca Hinsberger, who was one of roughly 20 people protesting Tuesday, said she has previously called Walgreens’ Soldotna location, asked if she could get a mifepristone prescription filled at the location and been told that she could. The conservative news site Alaska Watchman reported the same experience with the Soldotna Walgreens last month.

Fraser Engerman, the senior director of media relations and issues management for Walgreen Co., said Wednesday that the company is not dispensing mifepristone in Alaska. When presented with the scenario described by Hinsberger, Engerman reiterated that statement.

“We are not dispensing mifepristone in Alaska,” he said. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

The company is currently dispensing the drug, he said, in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California and Illinois, with plans to expand access in a phased approach.

“Our goal is to gradually expand availability to locations in all legally permissible states in a phased approach,” Engerman said via email.

Toby Burke, who organized Tuesday’s protest as well as previous demonstrations outside Walgreens, said the protesters are not part of a formal pro-life organization, but rather are a group of people mostly associated with churches who share a common interest in the cause. The group frequently demonstrated outside Planned Parenthood’s Soldotna location before it closed.

Burke, who was holding a sign that read “Boycott Walgreens,” said his goal in demonstrating is to discourage people from shopping at Walgreens and to encourage them to seek services elsewhere. He hopes to communicate to Walgreens, he said, that dispensing mifepristone is “bad for business.”

“When you come in here — even if it’s to buy toothpaste — you’re contributing to a company that says, ‘We’re willing to profit from the death of innocent babies,’” Burke said.

Tuesday’s demonstration coincided with U.S. Supreme Court deliberations on mifepristone access. As of Tuesday, national news outlets reported that the court seemed likely to uphold existing law, which allows patients to receive the medication via mail and without an in-person doctor visit. The court, though, has not yet issued a ruling and is not expected to do so before the end of June.

Alaska law allows mifepristone to be dispensed when the drug is prescribed by a physician and taken in a clinical setting, but it does not allow the pill to be sold directly to patients. Both federal law and state guidance also allow individual pharmacists to decline to fill a prescription for mifepristone and other drugs if doing so would violate their personal beliefs.

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor last February joined 19 other state attorneys general in signing a letter to the executive vice president of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc. The letter said the company could face legal challenges in those states if it followed through on any plans it might have to dispense mifepristone by mail.

The letter came two months after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it would be waiving its requirement that mifepristone be dispensed directly to a patient in a clinic, medical office or hospital. The agency also added a new requirement that pharmacies dispensing the drug become certified to do so.

The Alaska Department of Law differentiates between access to abortion, which it says is legal and constitutionally protected in Alaska, and access to mifepristone. State law, the department says, has always prohibited the sale of mifepristone directly to patients and allows only licensed physicians to perform abortions.

In response to Taylor’s letter, Walgreens added Alaska to a list of states in which it wouldn’t sell the drug, telling Taylor that the company had no intentions of dispensing mifepristone in Alaska or of shipping the drug into Alaska from any of its pharmacies.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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