A federal judge in New York struck down age limits Friday on access to the morning-after pill, drawing impassioned reactions among Ohioans who remain split over the controversial subject. Some praised it as an overdue, common-sense approach, while others said it violates parents’ rights to make medical decisions for their children.
Judge Edward R. Korman of U.S. District Court ruled that the government must make the morning-after pill available over the counter for all ages, instead of requiring a prescription for girls 16 and younger. The order overturned a 2011 decision by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to require a prescription for girls under 17.
“This should shock the conscience of every parent in the nation,” said Michael Gonidakis, executive director of Ohio Right to Life. “It’s against the moral fabric of our society for girls 12 and 13 to get a morning-after pill just as easily as if it were aspirin.”
Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said she was elated by the ruling. “For a long time, all the medical experts have agreed this medication needs to be available to women. It’s a second chance when birth control fails or you didn’t use birth control. It helps to avoid unwanted pregnancies and also abortions.”
Korman ordered the Food and Drug Administration to lift age restrictions on Plan B One-Step and all generic versions within 30 days, describing the government’s refusal to lift restrictions, despite a previous FDA recommendation to do so, as “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.”
Last year, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that oral contraceptives be sold over the counter in an effort to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
Planned Parenthood sent out a message to all its chapters, including Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio, saying it will encourage the FDA to enforce the ruling. “Our hope is that it will stick,” said local agency spokesman Rick Pender. “This is an overdue step that will benefit women of all ages.”
Gonidakis, however, said, “The Obama administration is reviewing the decision, and we don’t believe it will stand. We expect an immediate injunction by the Court of Appeals. It is so far outside of mainstream America.”
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, “When it comes to drugs, you have to be old enough to understand the potential side effects, and I don’t think the child has that level of understanding. If you allow a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old to make their own medical decisions, that’s setting a precedent that is a lot bigger than this issue itself — the idea that we’ll take health-care decisions away from parents.”
But Copeland and Pender said the previous restrictions placed undue burdens on women of all ages, requiring them to ask for the medication at the pharmacist’s window because it couldn’t be sold over the counter. That meant more limited hours and more potential embarrassment or intimidation. “Showing your ID and going through the pharmacist can be intimidating even for women over 17,” Copeland said. “There can be some shaming, some attitude and some judging.”
Added Pender, “Now there will be no scrutiny in the drug store that might turn women away, and no waiting until the next morning if the pharmacy window is closed.”
Lehner is such a believer in parental consent that she’s currently sponsoring a bill that would require parental consent for minors to use tanning beds. She’s outraged that a federal judge would take away parental consent on a far more important issue. “We should be encouraging conversations between parents and children, not shutting them down,” she said. “With this ruling, we’re sending the message as a society that we think our kids are mature enough to handle this on their own. Is that really what we want to say to our 14- and 15-year-olds?”
Added Gonidakis, “We shouldn’t build brick wall between children and parents. I have a 6-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son, and I’m worried. You want your government to protect your child.”
Copeland is equally impassioned. “It boggles the mind that day after day we have to fight for contraception,” she said. “That’s what happens when you have people so out of touch with the people they are supposed to represent, when you have politicians sticking their noses where they don’t belong, in women’s health care.”
The U.S. Justice Department said Friday it was considering an appeal of Korman’s ruling.
Scientists, including those at the FDA, have been recommending unrestricted access for years, as have major medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2011, the FDA commissioner, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, issued a statement saying that after rigorous study the agency concluded it was safe to sell Plan B One-Step over the counter. But she was overruled by Sebelius, the first time such a public countermanding had occurred.
The New York Times contributed to this report.