Coming Soon to Your Campus: Emergency Contraception Vending Machines?
On college campuses across the country, in states that restrict or ban abortion, students are revolutionizing emergency contraception access.
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Haydn Bryan discovered the concept of a health and wellness vending machine through a Snapchat news story in 2017.
The clip featured Parteek Singh, a graduate of the University of California, Davis, who brought a machine that dispensed emergency contraception to his school. The story went viral, and Bryan was motivated to bring the initiative to his own student community.
Bryan, at the time a sophomore at Boise State University, saw the vending machine as a solution to problems he had witnessed on campus. During his freshman year, Bryan said, his friend was sexually assaulted and needed emergency contraception.
“She faced a lot of barriers,” he said. You know, having to have transportation, not really wanting to talk to people about it, it’s costly, it’s uncomfortable, all of that. That led to just a lot of frustration for me. And I think that frustration is the mother of all invention.”
Bryan’s story is not unique. Plan B is an emergency contraceptive available at most pharmacies; it does not initiate an abortion. But the steep cost of the pill (often ranging from $40 to $50), limited hours of operation at many stores, and misunderstanding over whether identification is needed for purchase (it’s not) all remain barriers to access.
These issues have inspired students at colleges and universities across the country to increase Plan B’s availability and convenience through vehicles like vending machines, which can be placed in commonly used and inclusive spaces such as campus centers or gender-neutral bathrooms.
George Washington University and Tufts University are among the institutions that recently implemented Plan B vending machines. Tufts students and faculty say the addition has been a resounding success, alleviating some of the complications people face when seeking emergency contraception.
Installed in October through a joint effort between the Tufts Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE) and Tufts Students for National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Tufts’ health and wellness vending machine is located in the university’s undergraduate campus center, which on weekends is accessible to students until 1 a.m. Along with free condoms, lube, and dental dams, the vending machine offers Plan B for only $15 because the pill is bought in bulk.
According to CARE Director Alexandra Donovan, all items dispensed through the vending machine contain a sheet with additional usage guidelines, as well as how to connect with the university’s health services if needed. The CARE team checks the vending machine daily to ensure it is functional and to restock products.
Paige Shayne, a Tufts junior and president of Tufts NARAL, said it is heartening to see how the vending machine has expanded access to sexual health and wellness for all students. She hopes it has raised awareness that reproductive health affects everyone, regardless of gender.
“We love seeing students buying from the machine without embarrassment, and we’re hoping that the information in the machine for Plan B erases a lot of the misconceptions about contraception and abortion,” Shayne said. “So many students were really enthusiastic when the machine was first installed, which shows how supportive and open the campus is generally to reproductive health, so it’s been exciting for us to see students use the machine every day.”
Emergency contraception in ban states
For people fighting for reproductive rights in states that have restricted or banned abortion altogether, bringing emergency contraception into their communities is an uphill battle.
In late September 2022, Boise State Public Radio reported that the University of Idaho had sent an email to employees announcing that “promoting abortion, or providing contraception in some cases, could result in imprisonment, fines and a permanent bar from state employment.” The university, which is public and therefore state funded, claimed it was following Idaho’s No Public Funds for Abortion Act, signed into law in 2021.
Students can still get condoms—for the purpose of preventing STIs, not pregnancy—and receive birth control through student health clinics because they are run by third-party contractors and therefore not state funded. But the university itself does not provide any form of birth control, including emergency contraception.
Boise State, also public and state funded, continues to offer birth control through its student health center. Emergency contraception and pregnancy services, however, are unavailable.
This likely leaves Idaho with one college—the College of Idaho, a private university—that provides its students with emergency contraception.
Mara Gandal-Powers, director of birth control access at the National Women’s Law Center, believes the University of Idaho’s fear-instilling email has more to do with an obscure law from the 1800s targeting “distributing information about obscene acts,” rather than the No Public Funds for Abortion Act.
“It’s not a law that has been enforced, that we can tell, at any point in time, and is really outdated,” she said.
The vague nature of the memo leaves a number of unanswered questions. Could students at the University of Idaho or Boise State distribute birth control and emergency contraception on their own? Could they buy out a health and wellness vending machine, stock it, and maintain it without campus funding? Could residential assistants and other students employed by their universities offer emergency contraceptives to peers?
“There’s a lot of layers and moving parts, all of which … could be really confusing if you’re a student at University of Idaho, about what you can say and where you can get EC, and that’s really not good for anyone,” Gandal-Powers said.
No proactive support
While Connecticut is currently the only state that explicitly bans the sale of emergency contraception through vending machines, students in conservative states across the country have long faced barriers to sexual health and wellness, even before the overturn of Roe v. Wade last June.
The vending machine Bryan proposed to Boise State’s administration in 2017 was initially supposed to have around 36 products, including medications considered as quotidian as Advil. However, the initiative quickly became known as the “Plan B vending machine.”
“I was careful to always call it a health and wellness vending machine because it was meant to be inclusive of the fact that many people have many problems,” Bryan said. “But it really seemed like all of the focus was placed on [emergency contraception], which to me meant that people were willing to sacrifice other aspects of students’ health in order to fulfill their political ideology.”
Bryan said that in particular, a member of the administration seemed to slow the project’s progress in a way Bryan felt was intentional. This individual’s behavior affected student-led initiatives other than the health and wellness machine, leaving some of Bryan’s peers frustrated with the lack of support and communication.
While Bryan emphasized that these occurrences were not the sole reason the vending machine never made it on campus, he conceded that they affected his motivation.
“There were many, many, many supportive individuals within the faculty, and so that wasn’t the sole reason why the project didn’t work out. I didn’t have an unlimited amount of time,” he said. “But at the same time, perhaps the amount of time that I had available would have been enough if I had felt more proactive support.”
“It’s just like a black box”
In Texas, Nikita Kakkad, a junior at the University of Texas, Austin, spends much of her time delivering emergency contraception kits to her peers. Her role on the student advisory committee of Emergency Contraception for Every Campus (EC4EC) has connected her with local and national reproductive rights groups.
EC4EC is an initiative run by the American Society for Emergency Contraception (ASEC), which started in 2020, according to Nicola Brogan, an ASEC project manager. The group initially focused on bringing vending machines to campuses and communicating with schools that had installed vending machines prior to EC4EC’s existence. Of the 80 schools EC4EC has been in contact with, 32 have vending machines, Brogan said. However, the organization found that options at some schools are limited.
“What we really quickly noticed was that not all campuses are receptive to the idea of emergency contraception being in a vending machine, and that could be because of the state they’re in or their religious affiliation,” she said. On these campuses, EC4EC assists student groups in launching direct peer-to-peer distribution options, like handoffs or private pickup locations available off campus.
Kakkad was inspired to join EC4EC after UT Austin’s campus pharmacy, Forty Acres, abruptly shut down right around when the Supreme Court allowed Texas SB 8 to go into effect in 2021.
“After that, it just seemed to me that students were going to have a harder time accessing reproductive health services,” she said. “There was this situation primed to cause harm.”
Forty Acres had sold emergency contraception, although Kakkad said it was not offered at a discounted rate. While she noted that there is a Target and CVS adjacent to campus and that walking to the UT Health complex is feasible, Kakkad wanted a health and wellness vending machine for students, particularly as Texas increased reproductive health restrictions.
The process, however, has yet to move past back-and-forth emails with the administration.
“I’ve been talking to people about getting one for the past year, and everyone seems really hesitant for some reason,” Kakkad said. “Sometimes I have a really hard time getting answers, getting emails back, getting any clarity on why I’m being told what I’m being told … It’s just like a black box.”
Right now, Kakkad works with others, including graduate students in the sociology department, to maintain a number of peer-to-peer distribution options both on and off campus. Through a partnership with The Bridge Collective, Kakkad assists students in search of emergency contraception through both reproductive health kit drop-offs and pickups. The kits contain two packs of emergency contraception, pregnancy tests, condoms, a zine on what emergency contraception is and how to use it, and various stickers with QR codes linking to additional information on reproductive health.
Students fill out a brief, anonymous Google form that asks for one identifier, like a name (which can be fake), phone number, or location for drop-off. An alternate option provides students with a code containing information to pick up their kit at a place and time convenient to them.
Though the peer-to-peer distribution methods have been successful, Kakkad hopes UT Austin will take some responsibility to provide students with emergency contraception. She said she does not understand some of the administration’s hesitation, particularly given that Plan B currently remains legal in Texas.
After sending out a survey to students last spring, Kakkad said over 80 percent of respondents expressed interest in a vending machine. Ten percent of respondents wanted more information, such as whether purchases would show up on credit card statements.
Despite the widespread support, the administration has yet to take any active steps and remains seemingly apathetic.
“I think if they were in favor of it, they would have done more to make it happen,” Kakkad said about the administration. “And I think if they were opposed, they would have done more to shut it down. It’s easy for me to see the news stories about colleges getting emergency contraceptive vending machines, and I guess [I] feel discouraged because I’m like, ‘Well, where’s ours?’ I think in these restrictive states, you have to be more creative about the way you do it … It’s a totally different landscape.”
Though it can be frustrating, Kakkad said she recognizes that change in restrictive states, while small and incremental, is still possible. Students in conservative states are fighting a difficult but not impossible battle.
“My biggest takeaway from being in a restrictive state trying to do this kind of work is that probably nothing is gonna happen on the timeline you want it to happen and in the way you want it to happen,” Kakkad said. “But it’s important to remember that even the small things, like getting one kit into one person’s hand, really does matter. I don’t think that means students in restrictive states can’t still make a huge difference in the lives of the people around them. It’s just in a different way.”