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Feds Drop Opposition To Restriction On Sales Of Morning-After Pill


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. The morning-after pill will soon be available - without a prescription - on pharmacy shelves, with no restrictions on age. That's because the Obama administration has dropped a long-running battle to keep age restrictions on emergency contraception. NPR's Julie Rovner joins me to explain this policy change. And Julie, this was an unexpected development. It came tonight. What happened?

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Well, the administration, I guess, decided that it just was in a legal situation from which it could not extricate itself. This really started in May, when a judge ordered - actually - the Food and Drug Administration to make the morning-after pill available without age restriction, on pharmacy shelves. That would've - obviously - been a big change in policy.

The administration decided that it wanted to appeal. And normally, when the administration - when anyone appeals, they go to the judge; and they ask for a stay - for that no change in policy - while the appeal is being heard. The judge in this case, who was very angry at the administration for having dragged its feet over this - this basically had been going on for 10 years - denied that stay. He said no, I want you to do this now. And so the administration then went to the Court of Appeals and said OK, the judge wouldn't give us this stay. Will you, the Court of Appeals, give us the stay? And normally, that's fairly routine.

Well, last week, in a big surprise, the Court of Appeals says no, we're not going to give you the stay, either. They said, and this was a little bit confusing, that in one case - for the one-pill version of the emergency contraceptive pill, they could have the stay; that that wouldn't be allowed to happen yet. But for the two pill, the older version of the emergency contraceptive pill, that would have to be made available immediately, without age restriction, on the pharmacy shelves.

The administration basically didn't have a lot of options left, except basically to go to the Supreme Court to ask Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who's the Supreme Court justice in charge of this circuit. And I think they decided they didn't want to do that. And basically, they said they're not going to appeal at all; they're dropping the entire appeal. So that will basically make all versions of emergency contraceptive available, with no age restrictions, on pharmacy shelves. So they're basically giving up their entire fight.

BLOCK: And what does that mean for women patients then?

ROVNER: Basically, it will mean - and this will not happen right away - what the government is saying is that the company that makes the one-pill version of this is going to have to put in a new application that the FDA, they say, will approve without delay. But eventually - apparently, very soon - all versions of emergency contraception will be available, no longer behind the counter. That was a problem because women used to have to go and ask for it and show ID, even if they were over a certain age.

It was - it had been split; that if you were under age 17, you needed a prescription. If you were over that, you didn't. Now, no one will need a prescription. No one will need to show ID. Everyone will be able to get it over the counter without a prescription as, indeed, two FDA advisory committees recommended was safe, back in 2003.

BLOCK: Any reaction yet, Julie, from opponents of this policy?

ROVNER: No. This has, literally, just happened in the last hour. I don't think there's been enough time, really, for anybody to react. I'm starting to see maybe the first one or two press releases trickling in. But I think this was really not what anybody expected to happen. The government has said they were going to appeal. The briefs, and the appeal, were not even due for another couple of months. So everybody expected that this was going to, you know, really drag on again for at least another several months. So I think this is going to come as a big surprise to everybody, really, starting tomorrow.

BLOCK: OK. That's NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner, with the news that the Obama administration is dropping its fight to keep age restrictions on emergency contraception. Julie, thanks.

ROVNER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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