Scenes outside pharmacies could foreshadow next phase in U.S. abortion battle
We’re about to see a tangible example of what the next generation of abortion struggles in the post-Roe vs. Wade United States might look like.
The scene: local drugstores.
In the coming days and weeks, anti-abortion activists across the US will protest in front of dozens of pharmacies whose chains want to sell abortion pills.
It’s their attempt to recreate the familiar decades-old demonstration scenes outside of abortion clinics, updated for a new purpose.
Various groups plan to stand outside, hold signs, sing and inform customers that their pharmacy will be distributing abortion drugs.
A tandem of new realities explains this unusual protest environment: while the Red States, following a June 2022 Supreme Court ruling that Roe v. Wade — a 1973 decision that enshrined abortion rights — overturned the campaign to ban abortion, pills have become the leading method of abortion in the United States
And these pills, available online, sent through the mail and soon to be sold at participating pharmacies in pro-choice states, threaten to breach those new restrictive walls.
“Roe was the pre-season to the real fight”
Hence the muted celebration of this year’s annual anti-abortion march in Washington, DC, the first since abortion restrictions were enacted in two dozen states.
Participants described their struggle as just beginning.
“Roe was the preseason for the actual fight,” activist Caroline Smith said in an interview at the annual March for Life rally on Jan. 22.
“Some people said, ‘Do we even have to march? [this year]’like, what’s the point?’ It’s really, really important to still have that because we have to show people that the fight is still going on.”
For generations, protests have taken place at abortion clinics, like here in May 2021 in front of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Mississippi. The clinic was at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in which Roe v. Wade was lifted last year. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Smith works with an anti-abortion group whose members in Michigan and Washington have been accused of blocking clinics, including a confrontation in which a nurse tripped and sprained her ankle.
This latter case led to police confiscating fetuses from a group member’s refrigerator, which were being held as part of an alleged plan to ensure the burial of 115 fetuses.
Anti-abortion advocates are now targeting pharmacies.
The fight over Smith’s group, the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, increasingly involves the pills mifepristone and misoprostol.
CLOCK | US Supreme Court ruling drives focus on abortion pills: Renewed focus on abortion pills after US Supreme Court decisionShout Your Abortion advocacy group Kate Kelly says several groups across the US are working to educate people about the availability of to educate abortion drugs after Roe v. Wade fell. Why are the pharmacies next?
These products have become the leading source of abortions in the United States, officially overtaking surgical abortions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biden administration is now trying to simplify the distribution of the pills: In states where abortion is legal, it has retail pharmacies carry the pills, and in other states it has instructed the Post Office not to stop shipping.
The anti-abortion movement, meanwhile, is suing the federal government to block the pills nationally while urging states to ban online prescriptions.
An ongoing pressure campaign is planned against major national pharmacy chains such as CVS and Walgreens, which have agreed to distribute the pills. It includes a boycott campaign – and awkward scenes on sidewalks.
Demonstrations are planned for February 4 in several cities, February 14 at the Walgreens headquarters in suburban Chicago, and March 4 at additional pharmacies.
“If I were the manager of a CVS, I wouldn’t want us [standing] outside,” said Smith, who lives in Washington and will be protesting there. “That’s the social pressure and the tension and it has to go on until that happens.”
According to Smith, their movement faces the real danger that after decades of investing in closing clinics, one after the other, hundreds of pharmacies will spring up in their place to offer abortion pills.
Caroline Smith, pictured Jan. 22 at the annual March for Life rally in Washington, works with the group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising. She plans to protest outside pharmacies to make them feel uncomfortable selling abortion pills. (Alex Panetta/CBC)Biden administration: “We fight back”
At a sad Jan. 22 event marking the 50th anniversary of the now-defunct Roe v. Wade decision, US Vice President Kamala Harris announced a new executive order directing federal agencies to look for additional avenues to make the pills accessible.
Harris pointed to the human impact of anti-abortion laws — like the 10-year-old girl in Ohio who was sexually assaulted and had to go to another state to get an abortion, prompting death threats against the provider.
Or the Texas woman who nearly died of sepsis after she miscarried and was denied her first three attempts at an emergency abortion.
Or the 14-year-old Arizona girl with severe arthritis and osteoporosis who struggled to get critical treatment because her pills can cause pregnancy loss; her pharmacy feared prosecution.
Harris cited new state anti-abortion laws as drafted by extremists. “Today we fight back,” she said when she announced Joe Biden’s executive order.
One irony of the pharmacy protests is that one of the groups involved, Smith’s, would actually agree with progressive Democrats on some issues.
Boxes of the abortion drug mifepristone. The Biden administration, which has taken steps to ease distribution of the drug, is facing opposition from anti-abortion advocates. (Allen G. Breed/The Associated Press)
Your Progressive Anti-Abortion Insurgency describes itself as left-leaning; its members use left-wing language—referring to an “industrial complex” for abortion and “big pharma” as a hunt for “pregnant women.”
Sonja Morin, a graphic designer who works for this group and other anti-abortion organizations, said she will be protesting near Boston.
She said the protest tactics needed to adapt to some of the obvious differences between a giant pharmacy and an abortion clinic.
“It’s obviously going to be more difficult,” Morin said.
Anti-abortion activist Sonja Morin, pictured at the January 22 rally in Washington, says protest tactics need to be adapted to some of the differences between a giant pharmacy and an abortion clinic. (Alex Panetta/CBC)
“You’re not going to walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, are you picking a medical abortion for your prescription today?’ You don’t do that,” she said.
“We’re going to have signs, we’re going to have different things that say very openly, ‘Keep abortion out of our pharmacies.'”
Big chains want to get involved
Morin said her goal is to start talks to update passers-by about the latest developments: On Jan. 3, the Biden administration announced that abortion pills, previously sold online by medical providers and by some organizations, will be sold in popular Retail pharmacies would be available at the prescription counter.
Several major chains have said they will apply to participate in the plan – but only in states where it’s allowed by the authorities.
Morin’s colleague in the anti-abortion movement, Melanie Salazar, lives in Texas, a state where pharmacies don’t dispense the pills.
Melanie Salazar says she will protest in Texas even though pharmacy chains will not sell abortion pills in her state. (Alex Panetta/CBC)
But she will also protest because some of the same pharmacy chains that enforce the laws in their anti-abortion state will still sell those pills in other states.
People living in non-abortion states could get prescriptions at participating stores in other states; you can also order from overseas, although the US Food and Drug Administration has advised against it.
“We must stand in unity,” Salazar said. “We must protect life at all costs. And that includes speaking out and boycotting your local major pharmacy.”