Local parents say they support a ruling Friday that would allow women younger than 17 to purchase the morning-after pill without a prescription.
They just hope their own daughters never find themselves facing that situation alone.
U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York ruled Friday that federal age restrictions of Plan B One-Step, one of the most common forms of the morning-after pill, are “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” and ordered the Food and Drug Administration to lift the restriction within 30 days.
That means consumers of any age could buy emergency contraception without a prescription, rather than having to first prove they’re 17 or older. Now, a girl under 17 years old needs a prescription for the drug.
Friday afternoon, Dariana Garcia, 19, held her infant son on a bench beside a deteriorating basketball court in Waterville’s South End and said 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 would have never gone through the same level of trauma, she said.
“I felt like I was murdering my baby,” she said.
But the executive director of the Maine Christian Civic League 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.
At a Portland park Friday afternoon, Susana DelaPena played with her 4-year-old daughter and said “there are two sides to everything.”
“You’d hope your child would come and talk to you about that, but that’s not everyone’s situation,” DelaPena said.
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 prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg because it contains a higher dose of the female progestin hormone than is in regular birth control pills. Taking it within 72 hours of intercourse can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. The pill works best within the first 24 hours. If a woman already is pregnant, the pill has no effect.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed suit against the age restriction, and other groups have argued that contraceptives are unfairly held to a different and non-scientific standard than other drugs and that politics has played a role in decision-making.
In 2011, the FDA had been about to rule that Plan B be made available to all women regardless of age, when 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 Barack 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, 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 hard for women of all ages to buy the pills, especially young and low-income ones, he said.
Moreover, Korman noted that numerous over-the-counter drugs are dangerous for children, but are still sold nevertheless 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.
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 who can write prescriptions on staff, 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.”
Staff writers Matt Hongoltz-Hetling and Kaitlin Schroeder, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.
Noel K. Gallagher — 791-6387