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Editorial: Morning-after pill age policy isn't arbitrary

A package containing a Plan B One-Step tablet,

A package containing a Plan B One-Step tablet, also known as the "morning-after pill." Credit: AP

In a split-the-difference move likely to please nobody, the Obama administration has made the morning-after pill available over the counter for consumers age 15 and older.

The decision was no doubt a reaction to the April 4 ruling by a federal judge that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' previous decision requiring that people younger than 17 have a prescription for Plan B One-Step was "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable." The judge gave the Food and Drug Administration 30 days to make the pill available to all ages without restrictions.

The administration should appeal the court decision rather than seek a squishy middle ground by drawing the line at a different age, a move critics see as more politics.

Requiring girls to get a prescription is sound policy. It increases the odds that those girls, some of whom begin menstruation while in elementary school, will talk to an adult -- a parent, a doctor or trusted friend -- who can help them navigate the sexual and medical choices they're making. It could be a powerful teaching moment. And it would be an important opportunity to intervene if a girl were sexually abused.

Age 17 was a reasonable place to draw the line, and policy-makers are the appropriate ones to make that judgment. Policy should be informed by objective evidence, and the role of scientists here was to determine whether the drug is safe and effective. Sebelius' perfectly reasonable policy was not a triumph of politics over science.

How Plan B is sold is controversial and fraught with political ramifications. But Sebelius didn't employ any of the tactics used to politicize science. She didn't deny the scientific evidence, gag researchers who advised over-the-counter distribution, or deny funding to squelch that conclusion. She simply decided that girls younger than 17 shouldn't make the choice to take the morning-after pill on their own. That's the sort of judgment policy-makers must be allowed to make.