The federal government is appealing a judge's earlier ruling allowing those sales. Thursday's announcement allows the sales to continue while the appeal proceeds.
The brief order issued by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan permitted two-pill versions of emergency contraception to immediately be sold without restrictions, but the court refused to allow unrestricted sales of Plan B One-Step until it decides the merits of the government's appeal. It did not specify why the two-pill versions were being allowed now, though it said the government failed to meet the requirements necessary to block the lower-court decision.
The order, the latest in a series of rulings in a complex back-and-forth over access to the drug, was met with praise from advocates for girls' and women's rights and scorn from social conservatives and other opponents, who argue the drug's availability takes away the rights of parents of girls who could get it without their permission.
The Center for Reproductive Rights litigation director, Julie Rickelman, said the government has two weeks to decide whether to appeal the 2nd Circuit's decision on the stay to the full appeals court or the Supreme Court. Even if there is no appeal of the stay ruling, it was unclear how soon drugstores would move the two-pill emergency contraception from behind the counter. She said she hoped the pills would be available without restriction within a month.
The government has appealed U.S. District Judge Edward Korman's underlying April 5 ruling, which ordered emergency contraceptives based on the hormone levonorgestrel be made available without a prescription, over the counter and without point-of-sale or age restrictions.
The government asked the judge to suspend the effect of that ruling until the appeals court could decide the case, but the judge declined, saying the government's decision to restrict sales was "politically motivated, scientifically unjustified and contrary to agency precedent." He also said there was no basis to deny the request to make the drugs widely available.
The government had argued that "substantial market confusion" could result if the judge's ruling were enforced while appeals were pending, only to be later overturned.
The morning-after pill contains a higher dose of the female progestin hormone than is in regular birth control pills. Taking it within 72 hours of rape, condom failure or just forgetting regular contraception can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. But it works best within the first 24 hours. If a girl or woman already is pregnant, the pill has no effect. It prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg.
The Food and Drug Administration was preparing in 2011 to allow over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill with no limits when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled her own scientists in an unprecedented move.
The FDA announced in early May that Plan B One-Step could be sold without a prescription to those 15 and older. Its maker, Teva Women's Health, plans to begin those sales soon. Sales had previously been limited to those who were at least 17.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.