WASHINGTON - Selling the morning-after birth control pill right next to condoms, even if limited to buyers 15 or older, marks a big societal shift in the long battle over women's reproductive rights. Backed into a corner by a federal court, the Obama administration is considering how to proceed after what looked like a stab at compromise just made both sides madder.
The politically volatile debate reflects a reality that's difficult for parents, including the president, to swallow: Quite a number of teenagers have sex. So how easily should they be able to get a pill that prevents pregnancy if taken soon enough after sex?
On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration made it a little easier, saying anyone 15 or older could begin buying one brand, Plan B One-Step, without a prescription - two years younger than the current age limit of 17 - and that the pill no longer has to be locked behind pharmacy counters.
But it's far from clear whether that will happen. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York had given the FDA until Monday to lift all age limits on Plan B and a cheaper generic, mandating that emergency contraception be sold just like aspirin. Instead, by requiring that buyers prove their age at the cash register, the FDA decided to treat it like beer.
The Justice Department hasn't said whether it will appeal Korman's order and thus back FDA's new approach, and that leaves the whole issue in limbo.
"This is a truly bizarre and unprecedented situation," said American University law professor Lewis A. Grossman, a specialist in food and drug law.
On Wednesday, doctors' groups, led by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, urged the Obama administration not to let the FDA action be the last word.
Any over-the-counter access marks a long-awaited change, but it's not enough, said Dr. Cora Breuner of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports nonprescription sale of the morning-after pill for all ages.
"We still have the major issue, which is our teen pregnancy rate is still too high," Breuner said.
Even though few young girls likely would use Plan B, which costs about $50 for a single pill, "we know that it is safe for those under 15," she said.
Most 17- to 19-year-olds are sexually active, and 30 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds have had sex, according to a study published last month by the journal Pediatrics. Sex is much rarer among younger teens. Likewise, older teens have a higher pregnancy rate, but that study also counted more than 110,000 pregnancies among 15- and 16-year-olds in 2008 alone.
The White House sought Wednesday to put as much distance as possible between President Barack Obama and this political hot potato.