WASHINGTON -- The federal government is moving the morning-after pill over the counter, but only those 15 and older can buy it -- an attempt to find middle ground just days before a court-imposed deadline to lift all age restrictions on the emergency contraceptive.
Until now, Plan B One-Step has been sold behind pharmacy counters, and buyers must prove they are 17 or older to buy it without a prescription or else see a doctor first. Tuesday's decision by the Food and Drug Administration lowers the age limit to 15 -- and will allow the pill to sit on drugstore shelves next to condoms and spermicides or other women's health products. But customers must prove their age at the cash register.
Teva Women's Health, which makes Plan B, said it would begin over-the-counter sales in a few months.
The question is whether Tuesday's action settles a larger court fight. Last month, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York blasted the Obama administration for imposing the age-17 limit, saying it had let election-year politics trump science and was making it hard for women of any age to obtain the emergency contraception in time. He ordered an end to all age restrictions by next Monday, for Plan B and its generic versions.
The FDA said Tuesday's decision was independent of the court case and wasn't intended to address it. Technically, the FDA approved Teva's application to sell Plan B in this manner.
The Justice Department remained mum on whether it planned to appeal Judge Korman's decision.
The women's group that sued over the age limits said Tuesday's action is not enough, and it will continue the court fight if necessary.
Lowering the age limit "may reduce delays for some young women, but it does nothing to address the significant barriers that far too many women of all ages will still find if they arrive at the drugstore without identification," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The FDA said the Plan B One-Step will be packaged with a product code that prompts the cashier to verify a customer's age. Anyone who can't provide such proof as a driver's license, birth certificate or passport wouldn't be allowed to complete the purchase. In most states, driver's licenses, the most common form of identification, are issued at age 16.
Social conservatives had opposed any efforts to loosen restrictions on sale of the morning-after pill, arguing that it was important for parents and medical professionals to be involved in such decisions involving young girls.
Half the nation's pregnancies every year are unintended, and doctors' groups say more access to morning-after pills could cut those numbers. The pills contain higher doses of regular contraceptives, and if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. But it works best if taken in the first 24 hours.