A former senior official at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who is older than 50, recently tried to buy the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step (levonorgestrel) at 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening in a major metropolitan area. She had to go to three shops before she found one with an open pharmacy, necessitating the use of her car. After waiting in line at the pharmacy, she was required to provide proof-of-age identification and her birth date was entered in a computer. Next, the pharmacist walked the medication to the cashier at the front of the drugstore, where she was obliged to wait in a queue again. When she reached the counter, she had to publicly point out that the emergency contraceptive waiting on the shelf behind the cashier was hers.

If it was this challenging, logistically and socially, for a highly educated scientist to obtain the ‘morning-after pill’, imagine what it is like for a 17-year-old girl, or an undocumented immigrant or a single mother with no car and no driver’s licence.

Happily, these obstacles will soon be things of the past. Last week, the administration of President Barack Obama dropped its legal quest to keep in place a requirement that girls younger than 15 years old obtain a doctor’s prescription to buy the one-dose pill — which becomes less effective the longer after unprotected intercourse it is taken. The change makes the drug available to anyone, with no proof-of-age requirement, on open shelves, and not behind the pharmacy counter.

If it makes parents queasy to know that 13- and 14-year-olds will now be able to purchase the pill with no questions asked, two things are worth noting. A paper published in April confirms earlier findings that sex in this age group is rare (L. B. Finer and J. M. Philbin Pediatrics 131, 886–891; 2013). The same paper finds that girls aged 14 or younger are less likely than 15-year-olds to use contraception the first time they have sex, and that they take longer than older girls to begin using it. Another study found easy access to the morning after pill does not increase promiscuity in the youngest teenagers (C. Harper et al. Obstet. Gynecol. 106, 483–491; 2005).

Nonetheless, there is little comfort to be drawn from the Obama administration’s final climb-down on this issue. In a textbook case of political interference in science, successive foot-dragging administrations have for more than 12 years blocked women’s and reproductive-rights advocates’ attempts to win over-the-counter status for Plan B.

During that time, FDA staff scientists and expert advisers repeatedly found that the pill met the agency’s requirements for over-the-counter status for women and girls of all ages. Yet, in an unprecedented and deeply worrying action, in 2011 the Obama administration, in the person of health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, overruled its own FDA’s decision to lift the age restriction.

That same administration walked away from the case last week not because of any change of heart, but because it saw that it was going to lose before a judiciary that, rightly, has called the government’s tactics arbitrary and capricious.

The administration’s actions and attitude, coming from a White House that has vowed very publicly to back its scientists, and not undermine them, remain disconcerting. They raise concerns for the future independence of the regulatory scientists who are employed to apply science to existing law.

If this administration, or any White House, has a political issue with that law — if, for instance, it wants to enact a bill prohibiting emergency contraceptives for minors — let it do so openly, lobbying for such a measure in Congress. There, and not in the science agencies, is where politics belongs.