Accessing Emergency Contraceptives: Vending Machines

It’s true that not all heroes wear capes. Some wear galvanized steel with acrylic powder coatings and dispense products in exchange for a dollar or two. These heroes are vending machines. Whether it’s in between classes or at midnight in MLK, you can count on these bad boys for help in times of desperate hunger. Although sometimes dysfunctional, vending machines are accessible and dependable in our times of need.

But what happens if you’re having another kind of emergency? What if you suddenly get a migraine during a late-night study session or you’ve had unprotected sex the day before and need a Plan B pill as soon as possible? UC Berkeley’s Tang Center has a pharmacy with limited hours. Walgreens stores nearby also have limited accessibility.

College campuses across the nation face this same issue of accessibility to emergency contraceptives and other necessities like tampons and condoms. Schools like UC Davis and Stanford University, however, are changing this and moving forward with the implementation of “wellness” vending machines, which dispense items like Plan B, common painkillers, and more.

The change began at UC Davis under the leadership of recent graduate Parteek Singh. Within only a few months of being installed, 50 boxes of the emergency contraceptive pill had been sold. Quickly after, students from other schools began contacting Singh about implementing these machines at their campuses as well.

Over at UC San Diego, Sixth College Senator Caroline Siegel-Singh, along with Associated Students Vice President Ryan Moosighi and Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Wellness Karen Calfas, recently ordered the wellness machines for their own campus.

“I had an experience my freshman year where a friend needed Plan B,” Siegel-Singh said. “This made me aware of how much of a need there is on our campus. It shouldn’t cost $100 to access a product for your personal health.”

Siegel-Singh also stressed how important these wellness vending machines are for marginalized communities. “Reproductive justice is a part of racial justice,” she said. “Low-income women have significantly less access to products like Plan B on our campus and I wanted to make sure that our association is able to do something to increase access for all students as well as those who are already marginalized.”

According to CollegeStats, out of 2,000 sexually active respondents surveyed, only 62% said they used a condom “usually” or “always.” Fifteen percent said “never” and 1% responded with “only when it is available.” That being said, easy access to emergency contraceptives like Plan B is a necessity for those who are sexually active. Most drug stores around campus are not open late and sometimes are not open on weekends. This can be a problem because these are often the times when these incidents occur.

Another important aspect of the wellness vending machines is that they offer privacy by eliminating the face-to-face interaction a person would have with a cashier or a pharmacist. A junior at UC Berkeley stated that she had her boyfriend purchase Plan B for her because she was afraid someone at the store would recognize her and judge her for being sexually active.

“It’s not frowned upon when boys have sex, so I asked him to buy it,” the student, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “The wellness vending machines would help tremendously because they will take away this anxiety of buying in person, which may have preventing students in the past from purchasing emergency contraceptives.”

Currently, over 30 other campuses, including UC Berkeley, are considering similar proposals of installing wellness vending machines.

ASUC Senator Connor Hughes and his office launched the project this year and have made progress. “After seeing the impact it made at UC Davis, we knew it was something we wanted to pursue,” Hughes said. “[Parteek has] been a really wonderful resource on navigating funding, the administration, and potential backlash to a project like this. At this point, once we get the funding cleared, all other logistics are taken care of. I’m hopeful the machine[s] will be installed by fall 2018!”

Once installed, this improvement on contraceptive accessibility could potentially promote safe sex practices on campus and decrease the prevalence of unintended pregnancies. The wellness vending machines might be the heroes our campus needs.