President Barack Obama said on Thursday he was comfortable with his administration's decision to allow over-the-counter purchases of a morning-after pill for anyone 15 and older.
The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday had lowered the age at which people can buy the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill without a prescription to 15 - younger than the current limit of 17. The FDA decided that the pill could be sold on drugstore shelves near condoms, instead of locked behind pharmacy counters.
Obama, speaking at a news conference while in Mexico, said the FDA's decision was based on "solid scientific evidence."
What's still unclear is whether the administration will prevail on its appeal of a court order that would lift all age limits on purchasers of the pill.
That decision to appeal set off a storm of criticism from reproductive rights groups, who denounced it as politically motivated and a step backward for women's health.
"We are profoundly disappointed. This appeal takes away the promise of all women having timely access to emergency contraception," Susannah Baruch, Interim President & CEO of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, said in a statement late Wednesday.
"It is especially troubling in light of the Food and Drug Administration's move yesterday to continue age restrictions and ID requirements, despite a court order to make emergency contraception accessible for women of all ages. Both announcements, particularly in tandem, highlight the administration's corner-cutting on women's health," Baruch said. "It's a sad day for women's health when politics prevails."
After the appeal was announced late Wednesday, Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said, "The prevention of unwanted pregnancy, particularly in adolescents, should not be obstructed by politicians." She called it a "step backwards for women's health."
Last week, O'Neill noted, Obama was applauded when he addressed members of Planned Parenthood and spoke of the organization's "core principle" that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about their health.
"President Obama should practice what he preaches," O'Neill said.
In appealing the ruling Wednesday, the administration recommitted itself to a position Obama took during his re-election campaign that younger teens shouldn't have unabated access to emergency contraceptives, despite the insistence by physicians groups and much of his Democratic base that the pill should be readily available.
The Justice Department's appeal responded to an order by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in New York that would allow girls and women of any age to buy not only Plan B but its cheaper generic competition as easily as they can buy aspirin. Korman gave the FDA 30 days to comply, and the Monday deadline was approaching.
In its filing, the Justice Department said Korman exceeded his authority and that his decision should be suspended while that appeal is under way, meaning only Plan B One-Step would appear on drugstore shelves until the case is finally settled. If Korman's order isn't suspended during the appeals process, the result would be "substantial market confusion, harming FDA's and the public's interest" as drugstores receive conflicting orders about who's allowed to buy what, the Justice Department concluded.
Reluctant to get drawn into a messy second-term spat over social issues, White House officials insisted Wednesday that both the FDA and the Justice Department were acting independently of the White House in deciding how to proceed. But the decision to appeal was certain to irk abortion-rights advocates who say they can't understand why a Democratic president is siding with social conservatives in favor of limiting women's reproductive choices.
Current and former White House aides said Obama's approach to the issue has been heavily influenced by his experience as the father of two school-age daughters. Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have also questioned whether there's enough data available to show the morning-after pill is safe and appropriate for younger girls, even though physicians groups insist that it is.
Rather than take matters into his own hands, the Justice Department argued to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Korman should have ordered the FDA to reconsider its options for regulating emergency contraception. The court cannot overturn the rules and processes that federal agencies must follow "by instead mandating a particular substantive outcome," the appeal stated.
Social conservatives were outraged by the FDA's move to lower the age limits for Plan B - as well as the possibility that Korman's ruling might take effect and lift age restrictions altogether.
"This decision undermines the right of parents to make important health decisions for their young daughters," said Anna Higgins of the Family Research Council.
If a woman already is pregnant, the morning-after 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.