WASHINGTON - The Obama administration on Wednesday appealed a federal judge's order to lift all age limits on who can buy morning-after birth control pills without a prescription.
The decision came a day after the Food and Drug Administration had lowered the age that people can buy the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill without a prescription to 15 - younger than the current limit of 17 - and decided that the pill could be sold on drugstore shelves near the condoms, instead of locked behind pharmacy counters.
With the appeal, the government is making clear that it's willing to ease access to emergency contraception only a certain amount - not nearly as broadly as doctors' groups and contraception advocates have urged.
The order by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York would allow girls and women of any age to buy not only Plan B but its cheaper generic competition as easily as they can buy aspirin. Kor-man gave the FDA 30 days to comply, and the Monday deadline was approaching fast.
In Wednesday's filing, the Justice Department said Korman exceeded his authority and that his decision should be suspended while that appeal is under way, meaning only Plan B One-Step would appear on drugstore shelves until the case is finally settled.
"We are deeply disappointed that just days after President Obama proclaimed his commitment to women's reproductive rights, his administration has decided once again to deprive women of their right to obtain emergency contraception without unjustified and burdensome restrictions," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit that prompted Korman's ruling.
Rather than take matters into his own hands, the Justice Department argued to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Korman should have ordered the FDA to reconsider its options for regulating emergency contraception. The court cannot overturn the rules and processes that federal agencies must follow "by instead mandating a particular substantive outcome," the appeal states.
The FDA actually had been poised to lift all age limits and let Plan B sell over the counter in late 2011, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled her own scientists. Sebelius said some girls as young as 11 were physically capable of bearing children but shouldn't be able to buy the pregnancy-preventing pill on their own.
Sebelius' move was unprecedented, and Korman had blasted it as election-year politics - meaning he was overruling not just a government agency but a Cabinet secretary.
Whatever happens in court, moving the morning-after pill over the counter, even if limited to buyers 15 or older, marks a big societal shift in the long battle over women's reproductive rights. But in the volatile debate, both sides were unhappy with the FDA's surprise twist.
Any over-the-counter access marks a long-awaited change, but it's not enough, said Dr. Cora Breuner of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports nonprescription sale of the morning-after pill for all ages.
"We still have the major issue, which is our teen pregnancy rate is still too high," Breuner said.
Even though few young girls likely would use Plan B, which costs about $50 for a single pill, "we know that it is safe for those under 15," she said.
Most 17- to 19-year-olds are sexually active, and 30 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds have had sex, according to a study published last month by the journal Pediatrics. Sex is much rarer among younger teens.
Likewise, older teens have a higher pregnancy rate, but that study also counted more than 110,000 pregnancies among 15- and 16-year-olds in 2008 alone.
By the numbers
The age at which girls will be allowed to purchase the morning-after pill, down from the current age of 17
Cost for a single-pill dose
Percentage of 15- and 16-year-old girls who have had sex
Number of pregnancies among 15- and 16-year-olds in 2008
Sources: Pediatrics journal, The Associated Press, Food and Drug Administration