WASHINGTON - The government on Tuesday lowered to 15 the age at which girls can buy the morning-after pill without a prescription and said the emergency contraception no longer has to be kept behind pharmacy counters.
The decision by the Food and Drug Administration is an attempt to find middle ground just days before a court-imposed deadline to lift all age restrictions on the drug.
Today, Plan B One-Step is sold behind pharmacy counters, and buyers must prove they're 17 or older to buy it without a prescription. Tuesday's decision 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.
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 in 2011, saying it had let election-year politics trump science and was making it hard for females of any age to obtain the emergency contraception in time. He ordered an end to all age restrictions by Monday, for Plan B and its generic versions.
The FDA said Tuesday's decision was independent of the case and wasn't intended to address it. The Justice Department remained mum on whether it planned to appeal Korman's decision, and the White House had no immediate comment.
The women's group that sued over the age limits, the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Tuesday's action is not enough, and it will continue the court fight.
Social conservatives had opposed any efforts to loosen restrictions, arguing that it was important for parents and medical professionals to be involved in such decisions involving young girls.
The morning-after pill contains 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.