The company did not say why it would not sell the drug at its 2,428 pharmacies but called the ban a "business decision" that was made last fall.
However, family planning advocates criticized the move, saying that some women, particularly those in small towns where Wal-Mart pharmacies have little competition, would have greater difficulty finding the drug, Preven.
"Pharmacies have a moral obligation to provide health care to women, and frankly, emergency contraception prevents unintended pregnancies," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Foundation. "Wal-Mart has been selling birth-control pills for many years. They will come to understand that this decision is misguided." She has asked to meet with Wal-Mart executives to discuss the ban.
"There are many tens of millions of women of reproductive age in this country. Meeting their needs is an extremely good business decision," Feldt said in a telephone interview from Waco, Texas, where she was traveling today.
Preven was approved for sale last year as a morning-after pill. The drug is not the same as RU-486, which can be used in the first seven weeks of pregnancy to cause a medically induced abortion. RU-486 has not been approved for purchase in the United States but is legal in Europe and China. Many anti-abortion groups haven't taken a stand on Preven, saying 72 hours after intercourse is too early to know if the woman is pregnant.
"At this time Wal-Mart has made the business decision not to sell Preven," the company said in a statement Friday. "However, in the interest of serving and meeting the needs of our customers, our pharmacists will refer any request for this product to a pharmacy that does carry it."
Wal-Mart spokesman Jay Allen said many factors were considered, including potential sales, before the company decided last fall not to carry Preven. "Our decision not to carry this product is not based on the company's or any individuals in the company's ethical judgment or based on any kind of pressure," Allen said.
The New York Times reported today that the anti-abortion group Pharmacists for Life International had asked Wal-Mart not to sell the drug. The 1,500-member group opposes Preven, maintaining it aborts a fertilized egg.
However, its manufacturer, Gynetics Inc. of Somerville, N.J., says the drug doesn't cause abortions: Preven stops ovulation and prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterine wall. The company says the drug, which costs $20 for a set of four pills, is 98 percent effective.
The National Right to Life Committee has not taken a stance because it is impossible to tell if a woman is pregnant so soon after intercourse. "Thre is no way to know if fertilization has occurred," said Rose Mimms, the director of Arkansas Right to Life. "Our issues are abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. We have enough work to do without taking on something when there's still a question of whether there is life there or not."
Lloyd J. DuPlantis Jr., president of Pharmacists for Life International, was pleased with Wal-Mart's decision but said the concern the group expressed to Wal-Mart wasn't the reason for the ban.