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Obama backs effort to restrict sales of morning-after pill

Justice Dept. is appealing age elimination

MEXICO CITY — President Obama said Thursday that he was comfortable with his administration’s decision to allow over-the-counter purchases of a morning-after pill for anyone 15 and older.

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday had lowered the age at which people can buy the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill without a prescription from 17 to 15. The FDA decided that the pill could be sold on drugstore shelves near condoms instead of locked behind pharmacy counters.

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Obama, speaking at a news conference while in Mexico, said the FDA’s decision was based on ‘‘solid scientific evidence.’’

What is still unclear is whether the administration will prevail in its appeal of a court order that would lift all age limits on purchasers of the pill.

That decision to appeal set off a storm of criticism from reproductive rights groups, who denounced it as politically motivated and a step backward for women’s health.

‘‘We are profoundly disappointed. This appeal takes away the promise of all women having timely access to emergency contraception,’’ Susannah Baruch, interim president and chief executive of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, said in a statement late Wednesday.

‘‘It is especially troubling in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s move yesterday to continue age restrictions and ID requirements, despite a court order to make emergency contraception accessible for women of all ages. Both announcements, particularly in tandem, highlight the administration’s corner-cutting on women’s health,’’ Baruch said. ‘

After the appeal was announced late Wednesday, Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said, ‘‘The prevention of unwanted pregnancy, particularly in adolescents, should not be obstructed by politicians.’’ She called it a ‘‘step backwards for women’s health.’’

Last week, O’Neill noted, Obama was applauded when he addressed members of Planned Parenthood and spoke of the organization’s ‘‘core principle’’ that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about their health.

‘‘President Obama should practice what he preaches,’’ O’Neill said.

In appealing the ruling Wednesday, the administration recommitted itself to a position Obama took during his reelection campaign that younger teens shouldn’t have unabated access to emergency contraceptives, despite the insistence by physicians groups and much of his Democratic base that the pill should be readily available.

The Justice Department’s appeal responded to an order by US District Judge Edward Korman in New York that would allow girls and women of any age to buy not only Plan B but its cheaper generic competition as easily as they can buy aspirin. Korman gave the FDA 30 days to comply, and the Monday deadline was approaching.

In its filing, the Justice Department said Korman exceeded his authority and that his decision should be suspended while that appeal is underway, meaning only Plan B One-Step would appear on drugstore shelves until the case is finally settled. If Korman’s order isn’t suspended during the appeals process, the result would be ‘‘substantial market confusion, harming FDA’s and the public’s interest’’ as drugstores receive conflicting orders about who’s allowed to buy what, the Justice Department concluded.

Reluctant to get drawn into a spat over social issues, White House officials insisted Wednesday that both the FDA and the Justice Department were acting independently of the White House in deciding how to proceed. But the decision to appeal was certain to irk abortion rights advocates who say they can’t understand why a Democratic president is siding with social conservatives in favor of limiting women’s reproductive choices.

Current and former White House aides said Obama’s approach to the issue has been heavily influenced by his experience as the father of two school-age daughters. Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have also questioned whether there is enough data available to show that the morning-after pill is safe and appropriate for younger girls, even though physicians groups insist that it is.

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