Feds Drop Appeal, Allowing Anyone to Buy the Morning-After Pill

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Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images2006 Getty Images

The fight to make the morning-after pill available without a prescription has dragged on for more than a decade, but it appears that it's finally coming to an end. Late on Monday, the Justice Department announced that it intends to drop its appeal of a recent court ruling ordering that the pill be made available without restrictions. The decision means that after clearing a few more procedural steps, anyone will be able to walk into a drug store and buy Plan B One-Step without showing ID (which is key, as the drug is most effective when taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex). “The FDA’s decision will make emergency contraception available on store shelves, just like condoms, and women of all ages will be able to get it quickly in order to prevent unintended pregnancy,” said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.

Back in 2011, the FDA said it had determined that the drug was safe, and recommended that it be made available without age restrictions. That didn't happen because Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, overruled the agency due to health concerns. (Or, according to cynics, because the presidential election was quickly approaching.) This sparked a lawsuit, and in his April ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman ordered that the the prescription requirement for girls under 17 be lifted, saying, “the secretary’s action was politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent.”

Judge Korman said that emergency contraceptives based on the hormone levonorgestrel must be made available with no restrictions within 30 days. In a confusing move, the FDA announced in April that it would lower the age restriction for Plan B One-Step, making it available without a prescription to girls 15 and older, but a day later the Justice Department said it would appeal Korman's decision. According to the New York Times, it seems the government concluded it's likely to lose the case with the appeals court, and might have to go to the Supreme Court. The Times notes, "That would drastically elevate the debate over the politically delicate issue for Mr. Obama," and apparently the administration wasn't interested in another fight over reproductive rights.

Of course, the decision will still incense conservatives, but at least Obama won't be battling his base. Advocates for reproductive rights praised the latest development, with Richards saying, “This is a huge breakthrough for access to birth control and a historic moment for women’s health and equity.”