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Feds surrender: Teens can buy 'morning-after pill'

The federal government said today it will end its years-long fight against a judge's order to allow girls of any age to buy emergency contraception without prescriptions. 

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The government had argued that "substantial market confusion" could result if the judge's ruling were enforced while appeals were pending, only to be later overturned.

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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.

The FDA was preparing in 2011 to allow over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill with no limits when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled her own scientists in an unprecedented move.

The FDA announced in late April that Plan B One-Step, the newer version of emergency contraception, the same drug but combined into one pill instead of two, could be sold without a prescription to those age 15 or older. Its maker, Teva Women's Health, plans to begin those sales soon. Sales had previously been limited to those who were at least 17.

The judge later ridiculed the FDA changes, saying they established "nonsensical rules" that favored sales of the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill and were made "to sugarcoat" the government's appeal.

He also said they placed a disproportionate burden on blacks and the poor by requiring a prescription for less expensive generic versions of the drug bought by those under age 17 and by requiring those age 17 or over to show proof-of-age identification at pharmacies. He cited studies showing that blacks with low incomes are less likely than other people to have government-issued IDs.

The decision marks a sharp reversal for Obama and his administration. His previous decision to appeal set off a storm of criticism from girls' and women's rights groups, who denounced it as politically motivated and a step backward for their health. Abortion rights advocates who had counted Obama as among their supporters angrily questioned why a Democratic president had sided with social conservatives in favor of limiting women's health care choices.

Reluctant to get drawn into a messy second-term spat over social issues, White House officials have argued that the FDA and the Department of Justice were acting independently of the White House in deciding how to proceed. That approach continued Monday, with the White House referring all questions about the decision to Health and Human Services.

Still, Obama has made clear in the past that he feels strongly about the limits, and he said in 2011 he supported Sebelius' decision to impose them despite the advice of her scientists.

"As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine," Obama said then.

Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report from Washington.

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