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Lawmakers override governor's contraception veto

Move will ease morning-after pill's availability

It could take weeks or months for a new state emergency contraception law to take effect, despite the Legislature's resounding endorsement of the measure yesterday.

Massachusetts became the eighth state to allow pharmacists to dispense the emergency contraception pill without a doctor's prescription when lawmakers easily overrode Governor Mitt Romney's veto yesterday. But the state's Department of Public Health, which is overseen by Romney, must write regulations to implement it. Sally Fogerty, the associate commissioner of the state agency, could not immediately offer a timetable for the new rules.

''We do hope they will work as quickly as possible. We will be giving them information and examples from other states to make sure the process moves as quickly as possible. We're gathering that already," said Melissa Kogut, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. ''We'll be monitoring the situation."

In addition to allowing trained Massachusetts pharmacists to dispense the morning-after pill, the new law requires hospitals to offer it to rape victims. Most of the state's hospitals, 59 out of 71, according to a 2004 poll by abortion rights groups, already offer the pill to rape victims.

The Senate voted, 37 to 0, to reject Romney's veto, and the House followed suit with a 139-to-16 tally. Supporters needed a two-thirds majority in each chamber to overrule the governor.

''Not only was his veto irresponsible, his argument was based on weak and misguided information," said Senator Pamela P. Resor, an Acton Democrat.

Federal action might also have an impact on the new state law. The US Food and Drug Administration recently delayed a final decision on whether to allow over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill, saying it needed more time to figure out how states can enforce an age restriction. The agency says it is concerned that teenagers younger than 17 may require more guidance to use the pill properly. The federal rules might trump the Massachusetts law, which does not include an age restriction.

Some supporters of the law also worry that an FDA age restriction will make Massachusetts pharmacists wary of providing the pill to younger teens, because it might make the pharmacists vulnerable to lawsuits. But others say it is possible that the proposed federal rules would mesh with the Massachusetts law in a way that makes emergency contraception more accessible here.

Under the state law, only pharmacists who have entered into a special arrangement with a physician can dispense the pill without a prescription. But the FDA is considering allowing over-the-counter sales, meaning the pill would be stocked on store shelves, just like aspirin or cough syrup. It is possible that girls younger than 17 would be barred from purchasing the pill off store shelves in Massachusetts, but that the FDA would allow them to get it under the arrangement envisioned in the state measure.

The emergency contraception pill, also called Plan B, is a high dose of hormones that women can take up to five days after sex to prevent pregnancy. The pill is not to be confused with RU-486, which is used to end pregnancies up to 49 days after the beginning of the last menstrual cycle.

The FDA approved the use of Plan B as a form of prescription birth control in 1999. But the agency has refused to grant a request by the pill's manufacturer, Barr Laboratories, to sell it over the counter, despite the overwhelming vote of an advisory panel in 2003 recommending it.

According to the FDA, the pill mostly works by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary. But it also may block fertilization or prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. For those who believe life begins at conception, that amounts to abortion.

Supporters of the Massachusetts law say the governor broke his word by vetoing it. On a questionnaire abortion rights groups gave to the gubernatorial candidates in 2002, Romney answered ''yes" to the question, ''Will you support efforts to increase access to emergency contraception?"

But Romney, who describes himself as ''pro-life," said he had to veto the bill to fulfill a campaign promise not to change the state's abortion laws. Because the Massachusetts bill does not have an age restriction and Plan B sometimes causes an abortion, Romney argued, the measure undermines the state's parental consent laws.

Scott Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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