New York senators gave the go-ahead yesterday to a bill that would allow broader access to the morning-after pill, despite fierce opposition from groups who question the ethics of emergency contraception.

The move, which will now be passed on to Governor George Pataki for signature – or veto – would allow the morning-after pill to be dispensed by nurses, midwives and pharmacists to women, regardless of age, without a prescription. The proposal follows the lead of seven other US states and is in accordance with recommendations by a US Food and Drug Administration advisory panel – which was not followed by the agency,

Last year, the FDA courted controversy by over-ruling a recommendation to approve Barr Laboratories Plan B emergency contraceptive for over-the-counter use, saying that the company needed to prove that Plan B was safe for use in younger girls aged 11 to 16 [[07/05/04b]]. The decision prompted accusations that the Bush Administration – which has implemented a more restrictive policy on issues such as abortion since coming to power – had exerted pressure on the FDA to delay or even quash the application. Barr has since refilled its application excluding use of Plan B in under-16s [[23/07/04b]].

The bill was passed by a margin of 34 votes to 27 by the Senators, despite heated debate, with some taking the stand that use of emergency contraception was a form of abortion. Morning after pills are designed to prevent fertilisation of the egg and are around 89% effective if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex and differ from the controversial drug RU-486, which aborts an already fertilised embryo.

Proponents of the bill, which was introduced by Republican Senator Nicholas Spano, argued that making the product more freely available would in fact reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions. Barr has clinical data for Plan B that supports this view, with the product cutting unplanned pregnancies by more than 50% in trials [[17/12/03a]].