NEW YORK - The federal government on Monday told a judge it will reverse course and take steps to comply with his order to allow girls of any age to buy emergency contraception without prescriptions.
The Justice Department, in the latest development in a complex back-and-forth over access to the morning-after pill, notified U.S. District Judge Edward Korman it will submit a plan for compliance. If he approves it, the department will drop its appeal of his April ruling.
Last week, an appeals court dealt the government a setback by saying it would immediately permit unrestricted sales of the two-pill version of the emergency contraception until the appeal was decided.
That order was met with praise from advocates for girls' and women's rights and with scorn from social conservatives and other opponents, who argue the drug's availability takes away the rights of parents of girls who could get it without their permission.
Advocates for girls' and women's rights said Monday the federal government's decision to comply with the judge's ruling could be a move forward for "reproductive justice" if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration acts quickly and puts emergency contraception over the counter without restriction.
Annie Tummino, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit over unrestricted access to the morning-after pill and coordinator of National Women's Liberation, said women and girls should have "the absolute right to control our bodies without having to ask a doctor or a pharmacist for permission."
"It's about time that the administration stopped opposing women having access to safe and effective birth control," she said in an emailed statement.
The government had appealed the judge's underlying April 5 ruling, which ordered emergency contraceptives based on the hormone levonorgestrel be made available without a prescription, over the counter and without point-of-sale or age restrictions.
It asked the judge to suspend the effect of that ruling until the appeals court could decide the case.
But the judge declined, saying the government's decision to restrict sales of the morning-after pill was "politically motivated, scientifically unjustified and contrary to agency precedent."
He also said there was no basis to deny the request to make the drugs widely available.
The morning-after pill contains a higher dose of the female hormone progestin 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 girl or woman already is pregnant, the pill, which prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg, has no effect.