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  • The FDA announced last year that pills used for abortions can be offered at retail pharmacies.
  • This week both CVS and Walgreens said they would start dispensing the pills this month.
  • Research has consistently shown that abortion pills including mifepristone are safe and effective.

Retail pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens will start to dispense abortion pills to people with a prescription this month after getting certification from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The news was first reported by the New York Times.

Currently, the medication will only be available at Walgreens and CVS pharmacies in certain states. For Walgreens, the medication will start to be rolled out in pharmacies in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, and Illinois. And for CVS, it will be available at certain pharmacies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to the New York Times.

The news comes a year after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration changed a requirement allowing the medication mifepristone to be obtained at pharmacies. Previously it could only be obtained at clinics, medical offices, and hospitals.

President Joe Biden called the decision by the retail pharmacies to make the drugs available “an important milestone.”

“With major retail pharmacy chains newly certified to dispense medication abortion, many women will soon have the option to pick up their prescription at a local, certified pharmacy—just as they would for any other medication. I encourage all pharmacies that want to pursue this option to seek certification,” Biden said in a statement. “The stakes could not be higher for women across America. In the face of relentless attacks on reproductive freedom by Republican elected officials, Vice President Harris and I will continue to fight to ensure that women can get the health care they need, to defend the Food and Drug Administration’s independent and evidence-based approval and regulation of mifepristone, and to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law.”

Mifepristone, the first of two drugs used in medication abortions, could previously only be obtained at clinics, medical offices, and hospitals. The second drug, misoprostol, can already easily be obtained at pharmacies with a prescription.

Research has consistently shown that mifepristone is safe and effective and that lifting the in-person requirement does not lead to an increase in serious adverse events, such as hemorrhage or emergency surgical intervention.

In December 2021, the FDA said it was working to remove the requirement that pregnant people had to obtain mifepristone, a drug that blocks hormones necessary for sustaining a pregnancy, in-person.

That requirement was officially lifted last year in January.

Following the FDA’s actions last year — a move that has been entitled the Mifepristone Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) Program — patients will be able to get mifepristone at retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens or via mail-order pharmacies.

“In the wake of extreme abortion restriction, this is a victory for increased pharmacy access to this safe and effective medication, despite continued inequities that seem unnecessary and unjust,” said Dr. Hayley Miller, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health in an interview last year.

In order to get the medication from a pharmacy, patients must fill out a consent form and go through a health provider that’s certified to administer and prescribe abortion services.

Healthcare providers who want to prescribe mifepristone must be able to ensure the patient is no more than 10 weeks pregnant, as mifepristone can only be given up in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

They must also confirm the patient does not have an ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, the provider must be able to provide any necessary surgical interventions or refer patients to healthcare providers who can provide the necessary care.

Even while Roe v. Wade — the landmark ruling that protected people’s right to have an abortion — was intact, millions of people faced barriers, including poverty, distance from a health care facility, or discrimination, that made it difficult to access abortion care services.

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe in June 2022, it made it even harder for people across the country to get an abortion.

“As a physician who prescribes mifepristone and misoprostol for medication abortion and for management of early pregnancy loss, it can be challenging for patients to come into a clinic to have mifepristone dispensed for various reasons,” says Dr. Tania Basu Serna, an obstetrician and gynecologist with UCSF Health.

By eliminating the need to be seen in-person at a clinic, the Mifepristone REMS Program will make it easier for many patients to access the medications in a safe, timely manner.

“Being able to go [to] their neighborhood pharmacy, where they may go to get their other prescriptions or having their regular mail-pharmacy send these medications, is a huge step towards improving both access to abortion and towards normalizing abortion,” Basu Serna said.

Currently, the medication mifepristone, which was approved by the FDA over 20 years ago, is the subject of a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. That case could invalidate the FDA approval of the drug leading to the medication being banned or severely restricted in the U.S.

Telemedicine abortion, which gives pregnant patients the opportunity to access abortion medications remotely, can help significantly expand access to safe abortion, research shows.

According to Miller, mifepristone is a safe medication and patients who are prescribed the drug are thoroughly counseled on the risks and steps to take if they experience an adverse side effect.

“We do not foresee an increase in maternal morbidities by improving access to abortion,” Miller said.

Still, many states will continue to prohibit telehealth services that provide medication abortion, and some will uphold regulations that require patients to get an ultrasound, undergo counseling before getting an abortion, or go to at least one in-person medical appointment.

Patients living in states restricting abortion will still need to travel to get the pills, Basu Serna said.

The Mifepristone REMS Program is a step in the right direction, say experts.

“This is a huge win for improving abortion access and health equity, especially for people of color and people with low income who already face systemic barriers to care,” Basu Serna said.

The retail pharmacies CVS and Walgreens will shortly be dispensing abortion pills to people with a prescription.

By eliminating the need to be seen in-person at a clinic, the FDA’s Mifepristone REMS Program will make it easier for many patients to access the medications in a safe, timely manner.