A federal judge ruled on Friday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must make the morning-after pill available over-the-counter to girls 16 and younger.
In 2011, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced that the morning-after pill was safe enough for the agency to recommend that it be made available without a prescription to all "females of childbearing potential" – which it did.
But in the same announcement, Hamburg said that U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius disagreed, and would overrule the FDA's recommendation – which she did.
Judge Edward Korman of New York's Eastern District took Sebelius to task for that, writing that her decision had been "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable," as well as "politically motivated" and "scientifically unjustified."
Korman then ordered the FDA to make the morning-after pill available without a prescription, and without point-of-sale or age restrictions, within 30 days. Until that change is implemented, the morning-after pill is available to all women 17 or older, but only from behind a pharmacy counter. Anyone younger than that has needed a prescription.
What this ruling means
Jim Mangia, the president and CEO of St. John's Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles, praised Judge Korman's decision.
"It's an extremely important decision that will put more power in the hands of women with regard to their reproductive health," he said. "With such high rates of teen pregnancy, and all that is involved with that – including an increasing likelihood of a life of poverty, an inability to finish school and develop a career, all of the things that happen with the high teen pregnancy rate – this is a way of chipping away at that."
South L.A.'s teen pregnancy rate is the highest in L.A. County, according to information provided by the county public health department: about 59 births for every 1,000 teenage girls. The county's average is much lower – about 31 births per 1,000 girls.
"The next step obviously is to make sure these services are covered by all of the public insurance programs," said Mangia. "That's going to be critical for South Los Angeles."
But Ann Cavanagh, a family nurse practitioner who works at St. John's clinic, said she was "ambivalent" about the ruling. She described herself as a "huge proponent" of birth control, but said she's also wary of unintentionally promoting irresponsible sexual behavior.
"I feel that easy access to the morning-after pill would in some ways promote not using condoms," she said. "That kids will just think they can have unprotected sex because they have a pill. And that's not good in terms of [sexually-transmitted diseases]."
But there's also a big upside to the easier access that will follow Friday's ruling, she said.
"By the same token, it's hard to get into a clinic and see a doctor and get the morning-after pill if you really need it," said Cavanagh. Timeliness is crucial, because the pill is most effective when taken up to 72 hours after an incident of unprotected sex.
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11 percent of U.S. women reported using the morning-after pill at least once in their lives.