Japan began trial over-the-counter sales of morning-after pills on Tuesday as the nation takes a major step toward joining dozens of others that make the emergency contraception drugs available without a doctor's prescription.

Morning-after pills are now sold at 145 drug stores nationwide at prices ranging from around 7,000 yen ($47) to 9,000 yen as part of the health ministry's investigative trial.

Women aged 16 and older and who wish to obtain the drugs through the study can buy the pills after calling the pharmacy in advance. Any woman who is under 18 must have parental consent and be accompanied by a parent when making the purchase.

The pills, NorLevo and the generic version levonorgestrel, work best within 72 hours after unprotected sex and have an efficacy rate of 80 percent, according to the ministry.

Photo taken in Tokyo on Nov. 28, 2023, shows morning-after pills now available without a doctor's prescription after Japan began trial over-the-counter sales the same day at 145 drug stores nationwide.  (Kyodo)

Before the trial, women in Japan, including victims of sexual assault, had to go to a clinic or hospital for a prescription to obtain an emergency contraceptive.

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 it would make people less likely to practice safe sex.

Discussions have resurfaced regarding the over-the-counter availability of emergency contraceptive pills on the back of growing calls to protect women's rights.

Medical professionals have called for better access to the drug within Japan, as it could provide rape victims with vital protection after a traumatic incident while also potentially reducing the need for abortions which are considered more physically and emotionally damaging.

Morning-after pills are available over the counter in about 90 countries and regions, according to research conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.