A package of Plan B contraceptive is displayed at Jack's Pharmacy in San Anselmo, California. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

The U.S. government, in dropping its legal opposition this week to unrestricted sales of the popular Plan B One-Step morning-after pill, joined a short list of nations that have followed a similar path: India, Bangladesh, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, as well as some provinces of Canada.

Sixty-three other countries allow the sale of emergency contraceptives without a prescription but require consumers to ask a pharmacist for medication kept behind the counter, according to the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception. Although other European nations have considered liberalizing their policies, the United States is moving more quickly.

“We think it’s really great that the United States is going to be part of this small group of countries,” said Kathleen Schaffer, a senior program officer at the ICEC. “Hopefully, other countries will follow.”

The fact that the United States is ahead of much of Europe on a matter involving sexual behavior may come as a surprise — and an appalling one, according to antiabortion and religious groups that say the Obama administration’s decision was politically motivated and destined to cause negative consequences.

The administration “has abandoned common sense,” Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a faith-based public policy organization, said in a statement. “I sincerely fear for the future health and wellness of women and children, as doctors, parents, and pharmacists are eliminated from this very serious conversation about sexual activity, pregnancy, fertility, and overall health.”

Birth control advocates and women’s right groups, while applauding the administration’s decision, called for it to go further.

Amy Allina, program and policy director for the National Women’s Health Network, told reporters Tuesday that the two-pill version of the emergency contraceptive and more affordable generic versions should be made available. The administration’s action this week allows unrestricted access only to the brand-name, one-pill product.

A report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year, using data from 2006 through 2010, found that about 11 percent of sexually active women ages 15 to 44 reported having used emergency contraception. That number was up from 4.2 percent in 2002.

Heather Boonstra, a senior public policy associate with the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, said no connection has been found between wider access to emergency contraceptives and a lower rate of unintended pregnancies.

“There isn’t a lot of evidence on emergency contraceptive use itself reducing unintended pregnancy rates,” she said. “We do note, though, that when women have access to a greater number of contraceptive methods, we do see more overall usage.”

The debate over Plan B also is occurring among many of the school-age students at the heart of the fight.

“People will have sex regardless,” said Isabella Albamonte, a 17-year-old junior at the District’s Woodrow Wilson High School, adding that Plan B is “just a backup plan if you make a mistake.”

The Food and Drug Administration approved Plan B as a prescription emergency contraceptive in 1999. In 2003, its manufacturer requested that the agency make the drug available over the counter.

In December 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Se­belius broke with the recommendation of the FDA and rejected the request to sell Plan B without restrictions to girls younger than 17.

On Monday, after a string of legal setbacks, the administration abandoned its legal battle to defend age limits on the drug, even though a senior administration official said President Obama still opposes allowing young girls easy access to pills such as Plan B One-Step without a prescription.

Ruth Tam and Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.