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Judge Rules Morning-After Pill Should Be Available To All Ages

A federal judge in New York has ordered the Food and Drug Administration to lift all age restrictions on the over-the-counter sale of the so-called Morning After Pill. The decision could herald the end of a more than decade-long battle spanning two administrations.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A federal district court judge has ordered the Food and Drug Administration to lift restrictions on the sale of the most widely used morning-after pill that would make the pills available to women of any age without a prescription. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, if the decision is allowed to stand, it would settle a political controversy that stretches back more than a dozen years through two presidential administrations.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: U.S. district Judge Edward Korman, who has presided over the case on and off for the past eight years didn't mince words. He said the administration's actions in delaying and denying unrestricted over-the-counter sale of the so-called morning-after pill, quote, "have been arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable." Those who've been fighting since 2003 to allow Plan B to be sold to women of all ages without a prescription hailed the decision.

Nancy Northup is president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the parties to the lawsuit whose ruling was announced today.

NANCY NORTHUP: Today, science has finally prevailed over politics because a judge has ruled that it must.

ROVNER: Today's ruling applies only to products using the drug levonorgestrel sold under the brand name Plan B. It works up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, but it works better the sooner it's taken. It's not the same as the abortion pill RU-486, and it's also not the same as another emergency contraceptive on the market called Ella, which will remain prescription only.

Women's health groups have been complaining ever since the drug first became available only to women aged 17 and over without a prescription that the system wasn't working. That's because the so-called split approval requires that the product be kept behind the pharmacy counter where all women have to ask for it. That has created a serious barrier, says George Washington University health policy professor Susan Wood.

SUSAN WOOD: So all women are having to find open pharmacies and are having to come with their government ID and go through a series of lines or questions or asking for the product, unlike anything you would ever see for any other over-the-counter birth control methods or any other over-the-counter medicines.

ROVNER: Wood, a former FDA women's health official who quit over the agency's refusal to approve Plan B for non-prescription sale, says she was particularly pleased with one aspect of the judge's ruling, that's where he pointed out that the drug does not cause very early abortion.

WOOD: And I hope people also understand that we've always known that it's not causing abortion, can only help prevent the need for one.

ROVNER: But it's not just abortion that has made this debate so sensitive. It's also been about young teens having access to the drug without medical or parental supervision. That's what the Family Research Council objects to, says Anna Higgins.

ANNA HIGGINS: So what this judge is doing is saying he knows better than parents and he's bypassing this important guidance that parents give to children in making decisions in life in general, especially when it has to do with a potentially dangerous drug.

ROVNER: Higgins said her group hopes the administration will appeal the judge's decision. Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights obviously hopes it won't.

NORTHUP: I think that the judge has rendered a very detailed, factually sound, legally sound decision that the agency has acted arbitrarily and capriciously. So I feel that it's time for the Obama administration to say, let's do what's right for women and let's do what the court's ordering here.

ROVNER: The Obama administration is referring questions about a potential appeal to the Justice Department. It says only that it's reviewing options and, quote, "expects to act promptly." Meanwhile, the judge's order gives the FDA 30 days to drop its current restrictions on Plan B. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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