A federal judge has ordered the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to lift age and other restrictions on the sale of the morning-after pill, making the drug available over the counter and to women of all ages.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman reverses a 2011 decision by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius not to allow the sale of emergency contraception without a prescription for women 16 and younger.
The news will likely prompt a backlash from conservative groups that oppose young women's access to birth control without the involvement of their parents. Many of these groups also see the morning-after pill as equal to abortion.
Korman blasted Sebelius's 2011 order as "obviously political" and designed to avoid a fight with religious groups ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
"She has failed to offer a coherent justification for denying the over-the-counter sale of levonorgestrel-based emergency contraceptives to the overwhelming majority of women of all ages who may have need for those drugs."
The most recent decision means that, barring further legal proceedings, the FDA will make "Plan B" and other versions of the morning-after pill available over the counter to all women within 30 days.
The court allowed regulators some discretion in deciding which version of the drug — which can be administered in one or two steps — will be available under the new policy, if not both.
The decision won praise from the medical community and supporters of abortion rights, who have litigated cases involving emergency contraception since 2001.
"Today science has finally prevailed over politics,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"This landmark court decision has struck a huge blow to the deep-seated discrimination that has for too long denied women access to a full range of safe and effective birth control methods."
Northrup added that the decision is a particular victory for young women, women without government IDs and those with limited access to pharmacies.
The morning-after pill is used to prevent pregnancy in the hours and days following intercourse. It works primarily by stopping ovulation, but may also affect the uterine lining in a way that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting there.
That possible effect is at the heart of many objections to the Obama administration's birth control coverage mandate, which requires that most employers offer a full range of birth control methods in their health plans, including the morning-after pill.
More than 160 plaintiffs have sued to block the mandate. They argue that covering the morning-after pill under employee health insurance is tantamount to endorsing and subsidizing abortion in violation of their religious beliefs.
On Friday, abortion-rights opponents slammed Korman for "allowing the abortion industry to gamble with young girls' health."
"This [decision] allows young girls pressured into sex or even abused by adults to be manipulated into taking pills that cover up what is a criminal act," said Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest.
"The implications for informed consent — and the long-term health impact on women of all ages — are deeply troubling."
This story was posted at 9:24 a.m. and updated at 11:07 a.m.