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Feds Buckle On Emergency Contraception Age Restrictions


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The morning after pill is moving from behind the counter to on the shelf. Last night, the Obama administration announced it will comply with a court order that allows girls and women of any age to buy the emergency contraception without a prescription and without showing ID.

This decision is a sharp reversal for the administration and signals the end of a legal battle that spanned more than 12 years. NPR's Julie Rovner has been covering the story from the beginning and she joins us now. Health advisors first recommended these age restrictions be removed years ago during the early years of the George W. Bush administration but the government has always fought it. Why did the Obama administration give in now?

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Well, basically the Obama administration got backed into a legal corner. Now it's important to know there are two different formulations of this emergency contraceptive pill - a one pill dosage, called One-Step, and the older version where a woman takes two pills 12 hours apart. In April, the government was ordered to make all forms of the drug available over the counter without any age restrictions.

Remember, right now it's available to those 17 and older without a prescription, and those 16 and younger with a doctors' order. But everyone has to ask for it and show ID; that's has been a major barrier. The administration thought making every version of the drug completely over the counter was too drastic, and it appealed.

But it couldn't get courts to go along with delaying the original order while the appeal was pending, and it cited that rather than have every version of the drug available to everyone, it would take the judge up on one of the options that he offered.

WERTHEIMER: And what was that option?

ROVNER: Well, what happens now is that the makers of Plan B One-Step - by far the most popular version of the drug - will submit a new label, which the FDA promises it will, quote, "approve without delay." When that happens it would make that product available on the shelf without age restrictions. That approved without delay part is important, because it's been FDA's years of delay that got the judge to issue the order in the first place.

Now, the FDA said it won't make the two-pill versions of the product available over the counter because it's not as convinced that young teenagers can use it without supervision as it is with the one-pill version. So it may be that for a while that one product will be the only the one that will be easily available.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you mentioned that this is a fight that's been going on for more than a decade? Why is it been so sensitive?

ROVNER: Well, it has to do with young girls and sex, and that's about as sensitive as you can get. Scientists have been firm from the start that the pill is very safe, that even young teenagers understand how to use it to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. But conservative groups and even some not-so-conservative people like President Obama have expressed concerns about young girls getting the morning-after pill without the counsel of a parent or a health professional.

On the other hand, having it available without a prescription only for older teens and women has made it significantly more difficult for women to get the drug when they need it, and it is one of those drugs that works better the sooner it's taken. And the judge pointed out in his ruling that the restrictions make it much more difficult for minorities and lower-income women to get the drug because even if they were old enough, they were less likely to have ID.

WERTHEIMER: Julie, thank you.

ROVNER: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
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