This Friday, April 5 photo shows a package of Next Choice, a morning-after birth-control pill that approved by a judge for girls of all ages.
By Noel K. Gallagher
Local parents say they support a federal court ruling Friday that would allow girls of any age to purchase the morning-after pill without a prescription. They just hope their own daughters never find themselves facing that decision alone.
U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York ruled that federal age restrictions on sales of Plan B One-Step, one of the most common forms of the morning-after pill, are "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable." He ordered the Food and Drug Administration to lift the restriction within 30 days.
That means consumers of any age could buy emergency contraception over the counter, rather than having to first prove they're 17 or older. Currently, a girl younger than 17 years old needs a prescription.
"You'd hope your child would come and talk to you about that, but that's not everyone's situation," said Susana Dela-Pena as she played with her 4-year-old daughter at a Portland park Friday afternoon. "There are two sides to everything."
Her friend Joanne Leo was a teenage parent herself. She said she supported the judge's decision, but hoped her children would come to her to discuss an issue that important.
"I was so scared to tell my parents, but I did," said Leo, who has a 22-year-old son, a 15-year-old son and an 18-month-old girl. "You definitely don't want them taking something like that without knowing about it. I'd hope she would come to me, and not be taking a pill and seeing what happens."
The morning-after pill contains a higher dose of the female progestin hormone than regular birth control pills do -- it prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg. Taking it within 72 hours of intercourse can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent, but it works best if taken within the first 24 hours. If a woman already is pregnant, the pill has no effect.
Half of the nation's pregnancies every year are unintended, according to The Associated Press. Doctors' groups say more access to morning-after pills -- by putting them near the condoms and spermicides so people can learn about them and buy them quickly -- could cut those numbers. They see little risk in overuse, as the pills cost $40 to $50 apiece.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed suit against the age restriction, and other groups have argued that politics have driven decisions to hold contraceptives to a different -- and nonscientific -- standard than other drugs.
REACTION IN WATERVILLE
In Waterville, reaction to the news was mostly positive.
Dariana Garcia, 19, held her infant son on a bench beside a deteriorating basketball court in Waterville's South End. She took the morning-after pill herself a couple of years ago. Garcia said that when she was a high school student living with her parents she was ill-prepared for the rigors of parenthood.
"I was young," she said. "I wasn't ready."
For her, waiting those extra couple of years to have a child meant she could be a better parent.
"I had no money then," she said. "Now I have money. I can take care of my responsibility."
Garcia said she knew of people as young as 11 having sex, and that age shouldn't be a factor in access to the morning-after pill.
"It should be for all girls," she said. "It's a safety issue."
Standing nearby was Lorna Hubbard, a 34-year-old who said she wished she had access to the pill when she was younger. As a teenager, Hubbard said, she was forced to abort a pregnancy because of health reasons. If she had had access to the morning-after pill, she could have avoided the trauma of having an abortion, she said.
"I felt like I was murdering my baby," she said.
But the executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine said the ruling "obliterates" the expectation that a girl would have to be at least 17 to get the drug on her own.
"We believe it ignores the involvement of parents and medical professionals who are safeguards for young girls," said Executive Director Carroll Conley Jr.
Megan Hannan, director of public relations for Planned Parenthood of New England, said her organization is happy with the ruling.
"We know it's safe and effective. ... There is no medical reason to make it only available for women 17 or older," Hannan said.
In 2011, the FDA was ready to rule that Plan B be made available to all women regardless of age. But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in an unprecedented move, overruled her own scientists.
Sebelius said some girls as young as 11 are physically capable of bearing children but shouldn't be able to buy the pregnancy-preventing pill on their own.
President Obama said at the time that he supported Sebelius' decision, also citing concern for young girls. On Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president's position hasn't changed.
The 2011 move shocked women's groups, and in his ruling Friday, Korman blasted Sebelius for what he called an "obviously political" decision.
"This case is not about the potential misuse of Plan B by 11-year-olds," Korman wrote, saying the number of young girls using such drugs "is likely to be minuscule."
Yet the sales restrictions are making it harder for anyone to buy the pills, especially young and low-income women, he said.
Korman also noted that other over-the-counter drugs that are dangerous for children are sold without age requirements, while "these emergency contraceptives would be among the safest drugs sold over-the-counter."
Knowing the drug is medically safe is important to parent Elizabeth Scifres, who said she supported the judge's decision in general, but understood how it could be troubling for some people.
"For 'everybody' I think it's a good idea, but when I think of my own daughter, I really want to be part of that decision," said Scifres, who has a 9-year-old daughter and coaches the South Portland High School girls tennis team. "(But) it's hard to say that making her have a prescription would actually mean that I would be."
The Family Health Program manager for Portland, who oversees medical clinics located at several Portland high schools, said the ruling won't have much impact. The clinics have doctors on staff who can write morning-after pill prescriptions, and the clinics already offer reproductive services.
"I don't see that changing too terribly much how we do business," said Lori Gramlich. "We'll continue to offer kids an inclusive range of services, and that includes reproductive services."
The Associated Press and Morning Sentinel reporters Kaitlin Schroeder and Matt Hongoltz-Hetling contributed to this report.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: