WASHINGTON -- The morning-after pill might become as easy to buy as aspirin.
In a scathing rebuke accusing the Obama administration of letting election-year politics trump science, a federal judge ruled Friday that females of any age should be able to buy emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription.
Today, females can do that only if they prove at the pharmacy that they're 17 or older; everyone younger must see a doctor first. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York blasted the government's decision on age limits as "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable," and ordered an end to the restrictions within 30 days.
The Justice Department is evaluating whether to appeal or not, and spokeswoman Allison Price said there would be a prompt decision.
President Obama had supported the 2011 decision setting age limits, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday the president hasn't changed his position. "He believes it was the right common-sense approach to this issue," Carney said.
If the court order stands, Plan B One-Step and its generic versions could move from behind pharmacy counters out to drugstore shelves -- ending a decade-plus struggle by women's groups for easier access to these pills, which can prevent pregnancy if taken soon enough after unprotected sex.
Saying the sales restrictions can make it hard for females of any age to buy the pills, Korman described the administration's decision, in the year before the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, as "politically motivated, scientifically unjustified and contrary to agency precedent."
Women's-health specialists hailed the ruling.
"It has been clear for a long time that the medical and scientific community think this should be fully over the counter and is safe for [females] of all ages to use," said Dr. Susan Wood, who resigned as the Federal Drug Administration's women's-health chief in 2005 to protest Bush administration foot-dragging over Plan B.
Half the nation's pregnancies every year are unintended. Doctors' groups say more access to morning-after pills -- by putting them near the condoms and spermicides so people can learn about them and buy them quickly -- could cut those numbers. They see little risk in overuse, as the pills cost $40 to $50 apiece.
"The fact that it's over the counter does not make people have sex," said Dr. Angela Diaz, director of New York's Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. "Sixty percent of young people are sexually active by 12th grade, and the more tools we have to help them be responsible, the better."
Social conservatives criticized the ruling.
"There is a real danger that Plan B may be given to young girls, under coercion or without their consent," said Anna Higgins of the Family Research Council. "The involvement of parents and medical professionals acts as a safeguard for these young girls. However, today's ruling removes these common-sense protections."
Deirdre McQuade, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: "Plan B does not prevent or treat any disease but makes young adolescent girls more available to sexual predators. The court's action undermines parents' ability to protect their daughters from such exploitation and from the adverse effects of the drug itself."
The morning-after pill contains a higher dose of the female progestin hormone than is in regular birth-control pills. Taking it within 72 hours of rape, condom failure or just forgoing regular contraception can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. It works best, though, within the first 24 hours.