Morning-after pill may go over the counter

The Plan B One-Step emergency contraceptive box will be available without a prescription to all girls of reproductive age if  a federal judge's ruling is upheld.
The Plan B One-Step emergency contraceptive box will be available without a prescription to all girls of reproductive age if a federal judge's ruling is upheld.
Photo by Reuters
| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The morning-after pill might become as easy to buy as aspirin.

In a scathing rebuke accusing the Obama administration of letting election-year politics trump science, a federal judge ruled on Friday that there should be no age restrictions on the sale of emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription.

Today buyers must prove at the pharmacy that they are 17 or older; everyone else must see a doctor first. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York blasted the government's decision on age limits as “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable,” and ordered an end to the restrictions within 30 days.

The Justice Department was evaluating whether to appeal, and spokeswoman Allison Price said there would be a prompt decision.

President Obama had supported the 2011 decision setting age limits, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday that the president has not changed his position. “He believes it was the right common-sense approach to this issue,” Carney said.

If the court order stands, Plan B One-Step and its generic versions could move from behind pharmacy counters out to drugstore shelves — ending a decade-plus struggle by women's groups for easier access to these pills, which can prevent pregnancy if taken soon enough after unprotected sex.

Saying the sales restrictions can make it hard for women of any age to buy the pills, Korman described the Obama administration's decision, in the year before the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, as “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified and contrary to agency precedent.”

Women's health specialists hailed the ruling.

“It has been clear for a long time that the medical and scientific community think this should be fully over-the-counter and is safe for women of all ages to use,” said Dr. Susan Wood, who resigned as the Food and Drug Administration's women's health chief in 2005 to protest the Bush administration's foot-dragging over Plan B.

Half the nation's pregnancies every year are unintended. Doctors groups say more access to morning-after pills — by putting them near the condoms and spermicides — could cut those numbers. They believe there is little risk of overuse, as the pills cost $40 to $50 apiece.

Social conservatives criticized the ruling.

“There is a real danger that Plan B may be given to young girls, under coercion or without their consent,” said Anna Higgins of the Family Research Council. “The involvement of parents and medical professionals acts as a safeguard for these young girls. However, today's ruling removes these common-sense protections.”

Absent an appeal or a government request for more time to prepare one, the ruling would take effect in 30 days, meaning over-the-counter sales could start then.

The morning-after pill contains a higher dose of the female progestin hormone than found in regular birth control pills. Taking it within 72 hours of rape, condom failure or just forgetting regular contraception can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. It works best within the first 24 hours.

If a woman is pregnant, the pill has no effect. It prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg.

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