The Morning-After Pill Should Be Available to All Ages

At what age should girls be allowed to buy the “morning after” pill on their own? The answer, it seems, depends on whether the question is framed by scientific principle or by individual moral perspectives.

After reviewing research and consulting scientific advisers, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research concluded in 2011 that the most common form of over-the-counter emergency contraception, Plan B One-Step, can be used to prevent pregnancy safely and effectively by girls of any age.

The White House, by contrast, originally proposed, in late 2011, that only girls 17 and older should have over-the-counter access. This week, the Obama administration offered a new limit: age 15. Presumably the White House’s position is based on the notion that girls any younger lack the maturity to use the drug without a doctor’s prescription. No one has explained, however, why maturity should factor in a decision that a girl younger than 15 might nevertheless face, perhaps through no fault of her own. Indeed, by proposing two different age restrictions within the space of a year and a half, the administration only demonstrates how arbitrary both are.

In their evaluation, experts at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research -- including obstetrician-gynecologists and pediatricians -- determined that adolescent girls understand that emergency contraception isn’t to be used routinely. If there is cause to think those experts are wrong or that there is some other measure of maturity that applies for emergency contraception, we haven’t been told of it. The rationale President Barack Obama offered for the age-17 limit was, “I think most parents would probably feel the same way.”

Probably. Few parents are comfortable with the thought of young teenagers using emergency contraception. That shouldn’t make us insensitive to the fact that girls this age might need to. Because the drug blocks fertilization best if taken within 24 hours of unprotected sex, it is counterproductive to require the user to delay taking it in order to see a doctor first.

Under the administration’s proposal, even a 15-year-old could be hindered by the need to show a valid ID, which is not routinely issued to people that age.

The administration is also appealing a court’s ruling against the original age-17 restriction, which was set to take effect this month. It has argued that U.S. District Judge Edward Korman should have sent the issue back to the FDA for further review, rather than striking down the age limit. As Korman has pointed out, however, the legal fight to make emergency contraception available to all over the counter has been going on for more than 12 years. The court was right to side with science, leaving parents to establish their own moral guidelines. The administration should obey his ruling and remove the age limit without delay.

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