Federal Judge Edward Korman invited an abortion rights advocacy group to file legal motions regarding the recent refusal by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to permit girls under 17 to purchase the "morning-after" pill Plan B One-step off store shelves, The Washington Post reported. Girls 16 and younger now must have a prescription to buy the drug.
In a Dec. 13 hearing, Korman, whose court is in New York City, told the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) he was willing to consider arguments against HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' decision to block non-prescription sale of the drug. CRR said afterward it planned to add Sebelius as a defendant in the case.
CRR President Nancy Northup said her organization plans "to take every legal step necessary to hold ... the administration accountable for its extraordinary actions to block women from safe, effective emergency contraception. It has been ten years of battling to bring emergency contraception out from behind the pharmacy counter."
The back-up mechanism for both Plan B One-step and a two-step drug known as Plan B has drawn opposition from pro-life advocates. Both "morning-after" pills, also referred to as "emergency contraception," work to restrict ovulation in a woman or prevent fertilization. Acting after fertilization, however, the drugs can block implantation of a tiny embryo in the uterine wall, thereby causing an abortion, pro-life advocates point out.
In the case of both pills, women 17 and older do not need a prescription, but they must request the drug from pharmacists, who stock it behind their counters.
In 2009, Korman ordered the Food and Drug Administration, a HHS subsidiary, to make the "morning-after" pill available to 17-year-olds without a prescription. Before his ruling, the minimum age for non-prescription purchase of the drug was 18.
At that time, he also told the FDA to re-evaluate its age restriction on the non-prescription sale of the drug, a directive that could have opened the door for even pre-teens to have access to the "morning-after" pill. The FDA declined to lower the age restriction further than Korman's order.
Korman's most recent action followed by less than a week Sebelius' surprising decision to overrule a FDA recommendation that would have permitted girls and women of all ages to buy Plan B One-step as easily as they can obtain toothpaste and hair spray. President Obama said the next day he agreed with Sebelius' decision.
In announcing her action Dec. 7, Sebelius said she did not believe that the evidence provided by the pill's manufacturer, Teva Women's Health Inc., demonstrated that girls as young as 11 would be able to understand Plan B One-step's label and use the drug properly. About 10 percent of girls are able to reproduce at 11.1 years of age, Sebelius said.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, described Sebelius' decision as "very wise and prudent."
Fourteen Democratic senators wrote Sebelius Dec. 13 to express their disappointment with her decision and to ask her to provide the rationale for it.
The FDA, which approved Plan B for sale by prescription in 1999, has twice since liberalized its requirements. The agency authorized the non-prescription sale of the drug to women 18 and older in 2006. It lowered the age for non-prescription sale to 17 after it chose not to challenge Korman's 2009 ruling.
The "morning-after" pill, which also is marketed under the brand Next Choice, is basically a heavier dose of birth control pills. Under the regimen for Plan B and Next Choice, a woman takes a pill within 72 hours of sexual intercourse and another dose 12 hours later. Plan B One-step can be taken in a single dose within 72 hours.
The FDA approved Next Choice and Plan B One-step for marketing in 2009.
Korman's encouragement to CRR to pursue legal action against the federal government came after he agreed with the Obama administration that the advocacy group's request that the FDA be held in contempt of court was "moot," according to The Post. The FDA announced Dec. 12 it had rejected CRR's petition to drop age restrictions on Plan B.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.
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