LOS ANGELES-President Barack Obama once fretted about the prospect that girls as young as 10 or 11 could walk into a drugstore and buy emergency contraception pills as easily as "bubble gum or batteries."
With his blessing, the Department of Health and Human Services set aside the advice of medical experts and blocked efforts to allow girls younger than 17 to get the morning-after pill without a prescription.
That age limit is poised to disappear now that a federal judge cleared the way Friday for kids of any age to purchase the medication without having to notify their parents or a doctor.
In a ruling that called government regulators "politically motivated and scientifically unjustified," U.S. District Judge Edward Korman ruled that levonorgestrel-based contraceptives such as Plan B One-Step and Next Choice One Dose should be available over the counter to all customers within 30 days.
"There is no serious health risk associated with use of Plan B as prescribed and intended, much less one that would make restrictions on distribution necessary for its safe use," Korman wrote.
The drug, a synthetic hormone, prevents pregnancy by blocking ovulation and impeding the mobility of sperm. It does not cause an abortion in women who are already pregnant.
Reproductive rights advocates hailed Korman's ruling as a victory for science.
"A federal judge has accomplished what two administrations failed to do: make a decision about access to a drug based on medical evidence," said Michael Halpern, program manager at the Center for Science and Democracy.
Justice Department spokeswoman Allison Price said the government is "reviewing the appellate options and expects to act promptly."
Critics argued that easy access to the drug will promote the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
"There is a real danger that Plan B may be given to young girls, under coercion or without their consent," said Anna Higgins of the Family Research Council. "The involvement of parents and medical professionals acts as a safeguard for these young girls. Today's ruling removes these common-sense protections."