RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A recent ruling by a federal judge in New York may have ended a 13-year-long fight over one aspect of women's health - or maybe not. The judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration to drop all restrictions on the sale of the most widely used morning-after pill. According to the ruling, the pills would be available to anyone of any age on drugstore shelves. NPR's Julie Rovner has been covering the debate over Plan B since 2001. She joins us in the studio now to explain the latest. Hi, Julie.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, tell us what the judge ordered specifically and what does it mean for women who use this product?
ROVNER: Well, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman, who's actually had this suit before him in one form or another for more than eight years, has technically ordered the Food and Drug Administration to approve a citizens' petition asking that the morning-after pill be made available to all women without a prescription regardless of age within 30 days.
MARTIN: OK. And how is that different from what happens in a drugstore now?
ROVNER: Well, now the drug is available without a prescription to those 17 and older, but if you're 16 and younger you do need a doctor's order. Notice I didn't say it's available over-the-counter to those 17 and older. That's because it's kept what's known as behind the counter, which means that women need to ask for it. Usually, they have to show ID. And there have been a lot of cases reported where even adults have had a hard time getting it. In some cases, pharmacists have incorrectly thought they can't sell it to boyfriends or husbands. So, the groups who've been pushing to eliminate the age restrictions haven't been just arguing that they want to make the product more available to younger teens but more available to older women as well. That's important because while it works up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, the sooner you take it, the more effective it is.
MARTIN: Julie, this fight over Plan B has been going on for a long time, as we said, since 2001. What makes this particular drug so controversial?
ROVNER: Well, the judge actually talked about that in his decision, and I think it's really two things. First of all, it involves access to emergency contraception for adolescents, who, as the judge said, shouldn't be engaging in conduct that necessitates the use of those drugs. But also because, as he said, there's a scientifically unsupported speculation that the drug could interfere with implantation of fertilized eggs. In other words, cause a very early abortion. That's really important 'cause there's been a continuing fight over whether these pills can stop a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's uterus. Some people believe that constitutes an abortion. Recent studies, which have actually come out during the course of this fight, seem to show pretty conclusively that's not the case, that Plan B really only prevents the egg from being released, so it really only is a contraceptive.
MARTIN: So, what happens now? I assume there are still people who would like to see this pill stay restricted for younger girls.
ROVNER: Absolutely. There are a lot of groups that worry about its potential effect on younger teens' health. They worry about the possibility of sexual predators forcing it on young girls. They worry that, like all birth control pills, it doesn't protect against sexually transmitted diseases. And those were some of the concerns expressed by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2011 when she overruled the FDA, which at that point was ready to lift the age restrictions. And by the way, that's what FDA scientists and experts had recommended, that they be lifted. But now the administration basically has to decide whether it wants to appeal the ruling, which would anger women's health groups, or leave it alone and anger conservative groups who are worried about the impact on young girls.
MARTIN: Which is a big decision. Have you gotten any indications as to what the administration is likely to do?
ROVNER: Not really. On Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said despite the judge's very harsh words for Secretary Sebelius' actions, which the judge called obviously political, the administration continues to support the policy of maintaining the restrictions. But Jay Carney also said the final decision's up to the Justice Department. So, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Justice Department quietly decide just to let this judge's ruling take effect.
MARTIN: NPR's Julie Rovner. Thanks so much, Julie.
ROVNER: Thank you.