Op-ed: Vending machines: An equitable way to expand access to contraception on campus
Obtaining comprehensive reproductive health care has always been a struggle on college campuses, and Washington University is absolutely no exception. Student Health Services (SHS) expanded its range of services in 2016 to include five brands of IUD insertions, and while this is a win, it is time to revisit the conversation once again—is Wash. U. doing enough? Are students really receiving the reproductive healthcare support they need? Compared to other comparable universities, the answer is unequivocally no. Many reputable institutions provide access to Plan B and condoms 24 hours a day, seven days a week through vending machines placed in residential halls. We believe there is no reason for Wash. U. not to do the same.
There are preventable barriers to contraceptive access on this campus that Wash. U. has the power to solve. Emergency contraception (EC) is most effective when taken within 12 hours of having unprotected sex. At Wash. U., however, EC can only be obtained at SHS during open pharmacy hours, which close at 5 p.m. on weekdays and exclude weekends and holidays. This leaves a gap in time, specifically during weekends, when a student may be unable to access EC, and thus be at risk for pregnancy. Although EC is available at other pharmacies off campus, this still may provide a hurdle for students who do not have a car or are unable to walk the mile to Walgreens. Many students also face a steep price barrier at the nearest Walgreens; EC is not cheap, but SHS subsidizes it for students who come in at the right hours. Even worse, the availability of EC at off-campus pharmacies is often unreliable—research from Princeton University shows that out of 133 pharmacies in 22 different states, 41 percent did not have Plan B or a generic alternative available. This means that if a student can find a way to get off campus and pay for the pill, they may not even be able to find a pharmacy that carries it.
On top of the physical barriers, many people feel embarrassed or judged for seeking out EC, especially when interacting with someone face-to-face. Providing EC in vending machines would remove this factor and enhance the privacy and comfort of students.
To combat the many obstacles facing students seeking contraception, many colleges have begun stocking EC, along with condoms and pregnancy tests, in vending machines that can be accessed 24/7 by students. As of September 2017, 30 colleges across the U.S. had implemented projects like this. Many of these schools are comparable to Wash. U., including Stanford University, Dartmouth University, University of California, Santa Barbara and Pomona College. Within the first five months of having EC available in a vending machine at University of California, Davis, 50 boxes had been sold, proving the success of the machines. Vending machines with sexual healthcare supplies would address many of the barriers students face accessing care and would be a feasible project for Wash. U. to undertake.
According to Student Life’s 2017 Sex Survey, 76.4 percent Wash. U. students are sexually active, demonstrating an undeniable need for reproductive healthcare services on our campus. Washington University must continue to stand up for their students and affirm that they value young people’s health and bodily autonomy. As students, we are going to do all we can to hold our college administration accountable to their students and encourage SHS to take steps to increase access to contraception.
Kelly Barr, Carson Platnick, Julia Pasquinelli, Ava Mennin and Jillian McCarten