When it comes to public health, the government's job is to help Americans get access to the safest, most effective care. Finally on Monday, the Obama administration signaled it would do that job and prioritize women's and girls' health over gamesmanship. It said it would comply with a federal appeals court's order to make emergency contraception, called the morning-after pill, available to females of any age without a prescription.
The appeals court was the second federal court to warn the Obama administration that its position on the morning-after pill was arbitrary. In 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius limited over-the-counter emergency contraception use to women age 17 and up, overruling a Food and Drug Administration recommendation to sell the pills without a prescription or age limit. In April, a federal district judge in New York ordered that the most common morning-after pill be made available to all ages over-the-counter without a prescription. One month later, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman reaffirmed his position, denying the government's request to suspend his order as it appealed. Then last week, a federal appeals court also affirmed the contraception should be available to all as it considered the government's appeal.
Korman's order follows science. The morning-after pill, if used within three days of unprotected sex, has proven to block the release of an egg to prevent pregnancy. Scientists argue that the pill is safer than many common drugs, including acetaminophen. It is also less invasive than a surgical abortion that might be sought to end an unwanted or medically dangerous pregnancy. And contrary to assertions by conservative groups that have opposed any access to the morning-after pill, the medicine does not cause an abortion. It simply prevents fertilization much like other forms of oral contraceptives.
The government, however, failed for years to get the message. In recent months it has attempted to implement half-measures that would still deny some girls unfettered, over-the-counter access to the drug. But those efforts were informed by political calculation, not medical science, and were a step back for women's health.
More than 50 years after government regulators approved the first oral contraceptive, another version of that technology to provide women more options for preventing unwanted pregnancies will be available. President Barack Obama has delivered on a promise made two months ago to not let politics interfere with science. Finally.