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 there should be no age restrictions on the sale of emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription.
Today, buyers must prove at the pharmacy that they're 17 or older; everyone else 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 was evaluating whether to appeal, 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 women 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 women of all ages to use," said Dr. Susan Wood, who resigned as FDA'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."
Absent an appeal or a government request for more time to prepare one, the ruling would take effect in 30 days, meaning that over-the-counter sales could start then.
The Food and Drug Administration actually was preparing to allow over-the-counter sale of Plan B One-Step with no age limits in late 2011 when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in an unprecedented move, overruled her own scientists. Sebelius said some girls as young as 11 are physically capable of bearing children but shouldn't be able to buy the pregnancy-preventing pill on their own.
The federal judge dismissed that argument.
"This case is not about the potential misuse of Plan B by 11-year-olds," said Korman, who called the pills safe for girls but said the number using them "is likely to be minuscule" as less than 3 percent of girls under age 13 are sexually active.
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 forgetting regular contraception can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. But it works best within the first 24 hours.
If a woman already is pregnant, the pill has no effect. It prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg. According to the medical definition, pregnancy doesn't begin until a fertilized egg implants itself into the wall of the uterus.
Still, some critics say Plan B is the equivalent of an abortion pill because it may also be able to prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus, a contention that many scientists - and Korman, in his ruling - said has been discredited.
Plan B At a Glance
A timeline of decisions on the emergency contraception now sold as Plan B One-Step.
• 1999: The Food and Drug Administration approves prescription sales of Plan B.
• 2006: The FDA approves non-prescription sales for women 18 and older. Younger women would need a doctor's prescription. Because of the age limit, the contraception is behind pharmacy counters, so consumers have to ask for it rather than picking it up off the shelves.
• 2009: U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in New York orders the FDA to lower the age restrictions to 17.
• 2011: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overrules FDA and bars over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill. She says young girls shouldn't be able to buy emergency contraception on their own.
• 2013: Korman rules that the age restrictions on over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill are "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable" and must end within 30 days.