The health ministry will allow the sale of emergency contraceptives without prescription on a trial basis from this summer, a major step toward joining dozens of other countries that already allow over-the-counter sales of such drugs at pharmacies.

A ministry panel on Monday approved the sale of so-called morning-after pills through March at pharmacies that have trained pharmacists, private rooms and can be available on weekends, nights and holidays. They must also be able to coordinate with nearby obstetrics and gynecology clinics.

Under current rules, women, including victims of sexual assault, must go to a clinic or hospital for a prescription to obtain an emergency contraceptive, which works best within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse.

Selling the drug without a prescription was discussed by a ministry panel in 2017, but the ministry stopped short of giving the green light, with critics saying making a morning-after pill available would encourage the irresponsible use of the drug after intercourse.

Emergency contraceptives are available without a prescription in about 90 countries, according to research conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Clinical trials conducted at home and abroad indicate that emergency contraception pills demonstrate an efficacy rate of 80%. Medical professionals have advocated for improved access to the drug within Japan, as it could provide rape victims with a vital recourse while also potentially reducing the need for abortions.

Following the Cabinet's approval of various gender equality policies in late 2020, discussions have resurfaced regarding the over-the-counter availability of emergency contraceptive pills.

From the end of December to January, the health ministry received 46,312 comments from the public, with the majority in favor of the trial sale.