Inside Students’ Push To Get Emergency Contraception Vending Machines On Campus

As threats to abortion care and birth control loom, student groups across the country are using vending machines to improve access to Plan B, condoms, and other reproductive wellness products.
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  • Vending machines have become a new way for students to easily access emergency contraception at an affordable price.
  • College students across the country are working with reproductive health organizations to bring the machines to campus.
  • In the six-month period after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, demand for emergency contraception on campus is expanding.

Vending machines on college campuses traditionally are known for making it easy for college students to access snacks and sodas at any time. Now, reproductive wellness advocates are harnessing the convenience of the vending machine to make it easy for students to access emergency contraception 24/7.

Students across the country are leading the charge for widespread distribution on college campuses of vending machines stocked with emergency contraceptives such as levonorgestrel, also known as the morning-after pill or Plan B, along with other contraceptive and reproductive wellness products.

The first known emergency contraception (EC) vending machine was installed at Shippensburg University in rural Pennsylvania in 2012, and the University of California, Davis made headlines when it set one up at its health center in 2017.

But the movement for EC vending machines is gaining momentum across the country in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2022 decision ending the constitutional right to abortion, reproductive health advocates told BestColleges.

Right now, at least 33 colleges and universities offer EC in vending machines, according to Emergency Contraceptives for Every Campus (EC4EC), an initiative run by the American Society for Emergency Contraception. And students at some big campuses, including the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), have ramped up their efforts since the end of Roe v. Wade, with the support of EC4EC.

The organization provides interested students with fact sheets and information about legal implications for each state, explained Nicola Brogan, project manager for EC4EC. It also educates students about emergency contraception before the students pitch the idea to university officials.

"We work with (students) on preparing to have conversations with administration … because without your administration, it's virtually impossible," Brogan told BestColleges. "We really prep them on knowing as much as they can about emergency contraceptives so that they can educate the stakeholders that are making the decision on whether or not this project will be approved."

EC4EC has also developed webinars for students interested in bringing the vending machines to their campus in 2023, Brogan said. Since the group's founding in 2019, EC4EC has worked in some capacity with students at 81 schools in 32 states.

Universities that have had success bringing the vending machines to campus often serve as the blueprint for other student groups, Brogan explained. To facilitate networking between successful EC vending machine advocates and students at other schools, EC4EC connects students via social media and through an EC4EC Slack.

"The networking is happening," Brogan said, "and we're just hoping to increase that networking and make it easier for students to get in touch with each other by acting as that middle person to connect them."

Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy by delaying or preventing ovulation and does not end a pregnancy, according to the Mayo Clinic. It needs to be taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex, so accessibility, both in a financial and practical sense, is crucial.

That's why vending machines allowing 24/7 access are absolutely necessary on college campuses, advocates and experts told BestColleges.

Brogan said the ever-increasing number of EC vending machines on college campuses across the country are successes built on the work of student leaders.

In fact, student-advocates at Davidson College, Boston University, Northeastern University, the University of Washington in Seattle, and, most recently, George Washington University have all succeeded in getting EC vending machines installed on their respective campuses.

Other student-advocates, such as those at UT Austin, are in protracted negotiations to add the machines.

Here's a look at how students across the country have succeeded in — and continue to fight for — getting EC vending machines installed on their campuses.

A Work in Progress: University of Texas at Austin

Texas' flagship university needs an EC vending machine, according to UT Austin junior Nikita Kakkad.

Kakkad founded and leads an EC4EC chapter at the university that is actively working to get EC vending machines on campus. The chapter is modeling its vending machine proposal based on those recently installed at Purdue University, which stock emergency contraceptives, condoms, and over-the-counter medicine.

In April 2022, the UT Austin Student Government passed a resolution in support of EC4EC's initiative, but the process is still ongoing nearly a year later.

The need for improved student access to emergency contraceptives at UT Austin is acute, Kakkad told BestColleges.

Austin's Forty Acres Pharmacy, where students could previously purchase Plan B, closed in June 2021, according to The Daily Texan, UT Austin's student-run newspaper.

On top of that, the so-called Texas Heartbeat Act went into effect September 2021, prohibiting abortions after the presence of cardiac activity is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks after a woman becomes pregnant, according to the American College of Physicians.

"One thing that has been frustrating me recently is that I do see so many other schools getting these vending machines. I wonder sometimes what kind of administrative support and what kind of internal support they've gotten that I haven't gotten or why their administration is much more amenable to the idea of a vending machine than ours is," Kakkad said.

"It could have to do with local politics, it could be other factors, but it seems like we have just maybe not had as much administrative support some other places have, and I wonder sometimes what the structure looks like that differs."

The university is currently prioritizing a delivery system for Plan B that would connect students with local grocery stores and pharmacies for an emergency contraception delivery. However, this is a service that EC4EC-UT Austin already does for free through volunteer efforts from program members, according to Kakkad.

"I understand that there is a necessity for delivery service because we have seen the necessity for it, and we already filled that need," Kakkad said.

Even though she supports the university helping with those efforts, Kakkad thinks that there would still be a question of accessibility that a delivery service might not address as much as a vending machine would.

Additionally, Kakkad said that despite some pushback from the UT Austin community, her organization has mostly seen positive reactions for EC vending machines.

"[We got] a lot of overwhelming support from the community," she said. "We had some free response questions on [a survey], and there were some people who were pretty opposed. But a lot of that opposition is not grounded in fact. It is grounded in opinion or personal moral values, which isn't something the university uses to guide its decisions."

Post-Dobbs Success: Northeastern University

Northeastern University installed an EC vending machine in October, just over three months after the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ended the constitutional right to abortion care.

Students told BestColleges they advocated for the machines after they saw similar schools install them.

The wellness vending machine at Northeastern accepts cash, credit cards, and student campus dollars. Products include free safe sex supplies and period products, as well as subsidized emergency contraception for $7, according to student-advocate Ece Ulgenturk, a junior at Northeastern, who serves as social media coordinator for Northeastern University Sexual Health Advocacy, Resources, and Education (NU SHARE).

The university funds the machine and subsidizes the products that get stocked by an outside vending company.

The machine is popular on campus, Ulgenturk told Best Colleges.

"During the first month, we sold out of EC in the machine three times, demonstrating a clear need for these products. Since then, it has been in continuous use and there has been a constant buzz about the machine among the Northeastern student body," Ulgenturk said.

NU SHARE initially had trouble getting a response from the school's administration. But it started to see progress after school officials reached out and brought NU SHARE on as an official collaborator on the vending machine project along with the school's University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS) and Office for Prevention and Education at Northeastern (OPEN).

"[We] worked together from August to October to install the machine," Ulgenturk explained.

"[NU SHARE] specifically helped create resource guides about the products (shared via a QR Code on the machine). Additionally, we gave input about which products should go into the machine and ran the Wellness Vending Machine launch campaign. Currently, we are working with UHCS to expand the items available in the machine."

NU SHARE also coordinated with other universities like Boston University that were also part of Planned Parenthood Generation Action (PPGA), a movement of young people organizing to achieve reproductive freedom and to get EC vending machines on their campuses.

Last semester, the group worked with students from Bard College in New York to launch a campaign for an EC vending machine on their campus.

Early Adaptor: Davidson College

Students at Davidson College in North Carolina didn't wait for the end of Roe v. Wade to improve access to contraception on its campus.

In 2019, Davidson's branch of Planned Parenthood Generation Action installed "Wellness Wendy," a vending machine with emergency contraceptives, pregnancy tests, vibrators, and lubricant.

Phoebe Olszowka, a sophomore at Davidson, is the current Wellness Wendy chair. Olszowka, along with all the other students who help run the machine, find themselves restocking it multiple times a week.

"Students are really receptive to it. Whenever the machine is not working, students email us right away. People are really appreciative of it because it is so much more convenient to have it on campus, and it also takes away a level of anxiety," Olszowka told BestColleges.

"I have had multiple people tell me how grateful they are for the machine, especially when the laws around reproductive health and access are frequently changing."

At Davidson, the price of Plan B from Wellness Wendy has increased $2, and is now $10, since the court's decision to overturn Roe.

"A lot of people are mass buying and stocking up on Plan B, so as demand increases, so does the price … People also realize that they can jack up the price because people are going to buy it regardless of the price," Olszowka said.

Recently, Davidson used grant money to cover the cost of 200 boxes of Plan B, which gives lower-income students access if they are in need, according to Olszowka.

"We still had to charge for the Plan B that we put in the machine to make sure that we could keep the price of Plan B lower in the future," Olszowka said.

Making Connections: Boston University

Mackenzie Pike, a junior at Boston University and co-president of its PPGA group called BU Students for Reproductive Freedom (SRF), is encouraged by the nationwide connection between reproductive wellness student groups.

"It's so easy to look at the media and be very discouraged and lose all hope. But people are actually trying to make a difference, and people really do care about each other," Pike said.

BU Students for Reproductive Freedom created a guide to help other schools, such as Northeastern University, start the journey to getting wellness vending machines installed on their campuses.

"We have gotten hundreds of DMs, and we have shared our resource guide with many people from schools, different organizations, and individuals who want to bring it to their schools," Pike said.

For a short time, the machine at Boston University was out of service, and Pike shared that they received countless messages from alum and community members offering to donate money and to help distribute the EC pills until the machine was fixed.

"This was a very positive thing to see the community reach out and try to help each other," Pike wrote in an email to BestColleges.

Dobbs Decision Adds Urgency to Contraception-Access Efforts

Expanding access to Plan B is not the end of the fight for reproductive healthcare on campuses, students told BestColleges. In fact, the Supreme Court's June 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade has added new urgency to their efforts to improve access to contraception.

While the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs doesn't directly impact birth control methods, the decision does suggest the legal right to contraception is also at risk.

Justice Clarence Thomas in a solo concurring opinion called on the Supreme Court to apply the same legal theory it used to overturn Roe v. Wade to also overturn rulings establishing the right to contraception, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage.

The ruling has led reproductive health advocates such as Planned Parenthood to call for federal legislation preserving the right to contraception.

"For more than 50 years, the constitutional right to contraception has been protected by the Supreme Court's decision in Griswold v. Connecticut," Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson said in July 2022. "Yet, it's not lost on us that the courts are now hostile to rights that were firmly established — rights that Americans have lived with for years. That means that lawmakers must act to preserve rights fundamental to protecting our bodily autonomy and ability to determine our own futures."

To date, no states have officially banned emergency contraceptives, but more conservative states such as Idaho are already discussing future legislation that could outlaw it.

The push for EC vending machines on college campuses, however, shows that students across the country are unwilling to wait for federal legislation protecting the right to birth control.

Northeastern's Ulgenturk said that emergency contraception needs to remain accessible, even in states such as Massachusetts, which has expanded protections for women's reproductive rights since the Dobbs decision.

Ulgenturk suggested that there are several different reasons why a person might need to use EC and the convenience of vending machines make the product easily accessible for those who need it.

"Access to contraception and emergency contraception is critical because it gives people who can get pregnant necessary autonomy over their body," she said.