Thirteen years after a heated battle resulted in over-the-counter approval for emergency contraception, the product is finally shedding some of its stigma, and college campuses are leading the charge toward normalization.
In the fall of 2018, Yale’s Reproductive Justice Action League proposed a new plan to improve the health and wellness of its student population: emergency contraception vending machines. They wanted to join the dozens of other college campuses where emergency contraception vending machines have been quietly popping up for the past decade, making it significantly easier for students to take action in the wake of a broken condom or forgotten pill.
Unfortunately, Yale will not be joining this cohort. Last month, the university announced that it was scuttling the plan, not because of moral qualms or backlash from conservatives, but because of a little-known state law banning vending machines from being used to distribute over-the-counter medications. Similar laws exist around the country and are currently being challenged. This week, a bill was introduced in Maine at the request of students at the University of Southern Maine that would allow some over-the-counter medications — including emergency contraception — to be sold in vending machines.
But even as students at Yale and in Maine have to wait on this discreet and easy method of access to emergency contraception, there’s no denying that our national conversation about the product has undergone a major shift toward normalization: emergency contraception is now available at health clinics, drugstores, and, yes, in vending machines.
Emergency contraception, like Plan B, can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex. It has been available without a prescription for people above 18 since 2006, and it’s been available to people of all ages without an ID since 2013.
But in some pharmacies, emergency contraception is still kept behind the counter, which can be a major hurdle for anyone who feels awkward or anxious about purchasing the pill. The barriers to access are even higher for people who live in a place where pharmacists can refuse access to emergency contraception as they see fit. Buying online is another option (assuming you manage to locate the genuine article rather than a cheap knockoff), but when the clock is ticking down, you’re probably going want access that’s a little more immediate than Amazon Prime.
For students on isolated college campuses, distance is an additional hurdle, says Rachel Samuels, the Stanford alumna who led the charge for more accessible on-campus emergency contraception. At Stanford, Samuels says, the nearest pharmacy is about a 25-minute walk away (10 minutes by bike), with no guarantee that emergency contraception will actually be in stock. On rural campuses, access to pharmacies can be even more limited.
That’s why when Stanford students began petitioning for on-campus access to emergency contraception a few years ago, they looked to vending machines as a solution. The vending machine trend started at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, which stocked emergency contraception in vending machines in 2012. From there, it spread across the country. Samuels got the idea from her brother, who helped get the product stocked in the existing vending machines at Pomona College.
The result of her work is a small, high-tech vending machine called a Vengo that is located in the all-gender restroom in Stanford’s student center. It allows students to confidentially get access to My Way brand emergency contraception (and condoms) at any hour of the day. The pill costs $25, which is less than the $26 that the student health center charges or the $40 or $50 Plan B tends to retail for at pharmacies, though that’s more than twice what the same brand retails for on Amazon.
According to Shanta Katipamula, the president of the Associated Students of Stanford University, the machines have been extremely well-received and heavily utilized by students. In 2018, the machines sold 329 units of emergency contraception; due to student demand, plans are in place to install a second machine at the Li Ka Shing Center.
Since the Stanford machines debuted in October 2017, Vengo Labs began stocking emergency contraception at Columbia University and George Mason University. At Columbia, which is located in New York City, sources report that the machines were well-received but haven’t gotten much use, perhaps due to the campus’s close proximity to multiple pharmacies.
Vengo Labs founder Brian Shimmerlik is thrilled that the machines stocked with emergency contraception have been well-received by student bodies, but he says there’s no active plan to aggressively market the offering to additional campuses. Many of its machines sell snacks or small electronics, not medications. At the end of the day, “we are not an emergency contraception company,” says Shimmerlik. “We provide access to products.” For Vengo Labs, emergency contraception just happens to be one more product that its customers want to buy.
In a space that’s long been dominated by reproductive rights activists and public health advocates, it’s strange to hear an emergency contraception vendor discuss the product as though it’s no different from a candy bar or pack of dental floss. Yet, it’s somewhat refreshing, too. Access to emergency contraception has been made overly complicated by stigma associated with sex-related products. Now, in some places, it’s as simple as a swipe of a credit card and the push of a button.