“We knew there would be demand, but I think once it opened it was more popular than we were anticipating.”
On college campuses in Massachusetts, students have rallied around emergency contraception, working to install vending machines that dispense the product for a reduced price.
Emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill or by the brand name Plan B, costs up to $50 at retail pharmacies like CVS. Advocates say vending machines offer students a more discreet and affordable way to purchase the birth control method in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which has revealed disparities in access to reproductive care.
The push for emergency contraceptive vending machines on college campuses began before Roe v. Wade was overturned, with Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania creating the resource in 2012 and other schools following suit over the years. In Mass, Brandeis University installed one in 2019; Boston University just got one in March.
Tufts University will join that list of schools this fall, following a nearly year-long collaboration between student advocates and the school’s sexual health and misconduct office. The group Tufts Sexual Health Representatives announced in September via Instagram that a sexual health vending machine is officially arriving to campus. The resource will sell a generic version of Plan B for $15, along with condoms, dental dams and other supplies. The discreet packaging of the resources and itemization of the charges on students’ cards—the fee will not specify what students purchased—provide measures of privacy.
“If people don’t feel comfortable talking about it with their parents, they could be like, it was just a health services fee,” said Tess Kaplan, a student coordinator for Tufts SHR.
Students behind reproductive care efforts often recognize that while emergency contraception is available through prescriptions from health services departments, students may be hesitant to speak about their situations or be under a time constraint. The levonorgestrel emergency contraception pill, for example, works for up to five days after unprotected sex, but it is recommended to take the pill within 72 hours, according to Planned Parenthood.
Many university health clinics only operate during business hours. At Tufts, SHR organizers will place their machine in the Van Huysen Mayer Campus Center, which is open to at least midnight everyday.
“We wanted to put it in an area that’s pretty much center of campus and very accessible for people,” Kaplan said.
Northeastern University will also see the installation of an emergency contraceptive vending machine this fall. Students from the group Northeastern University Sexual Health Advocacy, Resources, and Education set up an online petition during the summer to show the demand for improved emergency contraception access.
“With Roe v. Wade being overturned, we wanted Northeastern to do something tangible,” said Ren Birnholz, president of NU SHARE, a Planned Parenthood Generation Action group.
The university has approved the effort, and a vending machine will be placed in the atrium of the Marino Recreation Center, a building open to both students and the public. NU SHARE has been working with university officials to provide the pill at a lowered rate that has not yet been finalized.
Statewide, in July, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a bill to protect abortion services and the sale of emergency contraceptives through vending machines in addition to requiring medication abortion services at public colleges and universities. Birnholz points out that the expansion of reproductive care is an opportunity to target remaining financial barriers.
“College students in Massachusetts are not the demographic that’s having the hardest time accessing reproductive care or abortion services—that doesn’t mean that the school can be complacent,” Birnholz said. “Legal access doesn’t equal cost access doesn’t equal transportation access.”
Some student advocates at schools that installed emergency contraceptive vending machines before the overturning of Roe v. Wade are seeing the resource take on new significance.
“[The overturn] was essentially something that undid a lot of the things that groups like ours have been working towards for many years,” said Dillon Tedesco, co-president of Students for Reproductive Freedom at Boston University.
BU SRF worked with Planned Parenthood and university departments to provide a generic version of Plan B for $7.25 starting in March. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the vending machine drew renewed attention online, especially from college students.
Tedesco said BU SRF has equipped students from other schools with a guide on how to install a vending machine on their respective campuses and encourages people to reach out.
“Legality varies in different states, and so it might not work for every single person, but it’s a general outline,” Tedesco said.
At Brandeis University in Waltham, the group Brandeis Pro-Choice established its vending machine in 2019 and found it had an immediate impact.
“In the early days of the vending machine … we were consistently running out of Plan B,” said Leah Timpson, the group’s outgoing co-president. “We knew there would be demand, but I think once it opened it was more popular than we were anticipating.”
The vending machine at Brandeis, now managed by the university-affiliated organization Student Sexuality Information Service, is stocked with emergency contraceptives that cost $1, along with other supplies.
Timpson remembers frequently hearing about how it has become a vital resource on campus. On one occasion when the machine ran out of emergency contraceptives, students direct-messaged Brandeis Pro-Choice on Instagram inquiring about the restock.
“It’s one of those things we don’t really realize how necessary it is until you need it,” Timpson said.
The issue of the accessibility of emergency contraception also highlights the need for open conversation around sexual health and reproductive care on college campuses. Advocacy groups emphasize that students range in the sexual health education they’ve received prior to college. These groups often hold workshops and create online resources so that students are informed about making safe decisions—but safe decisions also require access to different options.
“Not only making education accessible, but resources to apply the education to, is actually really important,” Kaplan said.