WASHINGTON — Seventeen-year-olds will soon be allowed to buy "morning-after" contraceptive pills without a doctor's prescription after federal drug regulators complied with a judge's order and lowered the age limit by a year.
The decision Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration, which overturns one of the most controversial health rulings of the Bush administration, was scorned by antiabortion advocates and hailed by their abortion rights counterparts. The long-running controversy involving Plan B, the emergency contraceptive, has had more of a political impact than a public health one. Since November 2006, when it became widely available to women 18 and over without a prescription, Plan B has had no measurable effect on the nation's abortion or teenage pregnancy rates.
Like their older counterparts, women 17 and older will now be able to go to almost any pharmacy, clinic and hospital and, after showing proof of age, buy Plan B without a prescription. Men 17 and older may also buy Plan B for a partner.
The agency's decision came after Judge Edward R. Korman of Federal District Court in New York ruled last month in a highly unusual case that the agency's decision to limit easy access to Plan B to those 18 and older was driven by politics, not science. He gave the agency 30 days to lower the age limit to 17.
Contraception advocates have pushed for easy access to Plan B for girls and women of all ages because the longer a woman delays in taking the medicine after unprotected sex, the more likely she will become pregnant. Eliminating doctors from the transactions, it was hoped, would lead to far fewer pregnancies and abortions.
Indeed, advocates once predicted that widespread and easy access to emergency contraceptives would cut the number of induced abortions in half and slash teenage birth rates.
But young people in the United States have so much unprotected sex — one in three girls under the age of 20 will get pregnant, with 80 percent of the pregnancies unplanned — that Plan B has been little more than a sandbag on an overtopped flood wall. Even women who are given the medicine for free often fail to take it after having unprotected sex.
But while the promise of emergency contraceptives has been largely unrealized, so have the predictions of disaster. Anti-abortion advocates predicted that easier access to Plan B would lead women to have more unprotected sex and more abortions. There is no evidence that either has happened.