Why Wal-Mart Agreed to Plan B

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Wal-Mart, a company better known for its conservative sensibilities, handed a victory to pro-abortion-rights groups today with its decision to begin stocking the Plan B emergency contraceptive, also known as the “morning-after pill,” in all of its 4,000 pharmacies in the U.S., starting March 20.

The move effectively heads off any further legal action against the company over access to the drug. In Massachusetts and Illinois, where state laws require any pharmacy that stocks ordinary contraceptives to also stock Plan B, Wal-Mart has already agreed to offer the drug. “We expect more states to require us to sell emergency contraceptives in the months ahead,” said Ron Chomiuk, vice president of Wal-Mart’s pharmacy division. “Because of this, and the fact that this is an FDA-approved product, we feel it is difficult to justify being the country’s only major pharmacy chain not selling it.”

While Wal-Mart has never publicly objected to Plan B on principle (it says Plan B simply isn’t in great demand), it has nevertheless faced intense ideological pressure. “We’ve had women’s groups who felt that we should be selling it; we’ve had conservative Christian organizations that felt Wal-Mart was the last one taking a stand again the drug,” says Mona Williams, a spokeswoman for the company. Wal-Mart has been considering the change for months; at a meeting in January of store managers, several lobbied for adding Plan B to the usual stock, arguing that the majority of Wal-Mart customers are women and would appreciate having it available.

The drug, which is available only by prescription, is a high-dose variant of ordinary birth control pills and works in a similar way, by preventing ovulation and fertilization. It can also work by inhibiting a fertilized egg from implanting itself in the uterus, a process that anti-abortion-rights advocates say is effectively an abortion. In a concession to opponents, Wal-Mart will keep its policy allowing individual pharmacists with moral qualms about Plan B to turn a customer down, as long as they refer her to another pharmacist or nearby pharmacy. (That policy will not apply in Massachusetts or Illinois.)

Pro-abortion-rights advocates embraced the company’s decision as a significant step in expanding quick, convenient access. “We’re thrilled—we think this is a great first step for Wal-Mart,” says Dianne Luby of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, which had filed suit against the company to force it to comply with the state law. She says the move is particularly important for women in rural areas, where Wal-Mart is often the only pharmacy in town. Because Plan B is effective only within the first 72 hours after unprotected sex and is most effective in the first 24 hours, proponents of the drug say that any obstacle—a pharmacy that’s out of stock or a pharmacist who refuses to dispense the drug—runs down the clock toward an unplanned pregnancy. Anti-abortion-rights groups were disappointed. “It’s a capitulation to the strong-arm tactics of the abortion lobby,” says Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. “There is no great demand for this drug.”

But the fight over Plan B is far from over. The real prize is over-the-counter access, which would make Plan B as easy to buy as a condom. The Food and Drug Administration last year delayed a decision on over-the-counter access for Plan B, ignoring the recommendation of its own scientists, as TIME reported in September. The Center for Reproductive Rights has sued the FDA to force a ruling, but a decision on this politically charged issue is unlikely before the November mid-term elections.

With reporting by Sean Scully/Philadelphia