When they arrived at Boston University, Molly Baker and Charlotte Beatty didn’t expect their educational paths to lead them to the American vending machine industry.
They did not envision growing familiar, for instance, with the intricacies of vending credit card systems. But after overseeing the launch of a new machine on campus that distributes emergency contraception, the co-presidents of BU’s Students for Reproductive Freedom have found themselves a sudden toast of the vending world.
“We made it into Vending Times!” Beatty said of their project’s recent write-up in the trade publication.
The so-called “Plan B vending machine” is among the first of its kind in the United States, offering students a generic version of what is known as the “morning after” pill for $7.25, significantly less than some over-the-counter options and with privacy not afforded by a trip to the pharmacy.
Since it was installed earlier this month in the basement of the BU student union, the machine has already become a popular commodity among the school’s students, as well as a significant topic of conversation.
The machine’s arrival comes as abortion rights are being sharply restricted in many states and fears intensify that the Supreme Court could roll back abortion rights that have been in place since 1973′s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Last year alone, said Nate Horwitz-Willis, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, nearly 600 abortion restrictions were introduced across the country and more than 100 were signed into law, the highest figure in a single year since Roe v. Wade.
“In just the first three months of 2022, more than 500 anti-abortion rights bills were [filed] in 41 states,” he added.
While plans for the vending machine predate the recent restrictions — the BU student group began considering the idea five years ago following discussions with students at Brandeis University, which in 2019 installed a similar machine — its launch has coincided with a push by student organizations across the country to bring renewed attention to reproductive education and on-campus resources.
Machines selling things like condoms and emergency contraception have popped up at a small handful of college campuses across the country, and some student groups have begun offering delivery of the same types of products.
“Unfortunately, Molly and I and the rest of our club aren’t going to have a lot of sway with the Supreme Court,” said Beatty, now a senior at BU. “But what we can do is make sure people [on campus] have access to emergency contraceptive.”
But making that happen was far from simple. Although the group had funding from multiple sources — according to Baker and Beatty, the $3,000 machine was paid for with grant funding from Planned Parenthood, university funds, and online donations — there were a number of logistical obstacles.
The group had to figure out where to have the vending machine delivered and how to ensure it remained stocked. (The emergency contraception pill, which is meant to be used within 72 hours of unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy, differs significantly from medication abortion, which is taken following a pregnancy).
Even figuring out how to access and transfer payment from the organization’s account proved tricky.
“I’ve never thought so much about vending machines,” Baker said.
It didn’t help when the pandemic sent students home in spring 2020, delaying the campaign. But over the recent winter break, Beatty said, the vending machine was finally delivered to campus and later stocked with medication purchased with the help of the university’s Student Health Services.
Earlier this month, it was placed in a small nook in the student union, with a small dedication ceremony marking the occasion.
Since its arrival, Baker said, the machine has received a wave of positive feedback. Their initial concerns over possible pushback from conservative student groups never materialized, a few online trolls notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Baker said, current and former students have reached out to the student group in thanks, recounting how inconvenient it had been for them to purchase emergency contraception.
In its first three weeks, she added, students had bought more than 130 pills.
“The coolest thing that I think happens is when you hear people say, ‘Have you heard [about] this vending machine?’ ” Baker said. “And you’re like, ‘Oh, I have heard of that.’ ”
Baker said the vending machine’s popularity has also brought visions of expansion. Boston University’s Health Promotion and Prevention department recently contacted the group about the possibility of adding more machines, said Beatty, while student organizations at other universities have reached out for advice on bringing machines to their own campuses.
“My hope is that other colleges and universities see this as a good thing, and reach out to the student groups and don’t wait for the student groups to reach out to the administration,” said Judy Norsigian, co-founder and board chairwoman of Our Bodies Ourselves, a Boston-based nonprofit focused on women’s health and reproductive rights. “Because it’s a really important student health measure.”
Colin Riley, a spokesman for BU, said that although no immediate plans for adding machines are in the works, the university is keeping an open mind.
“At this point,” he said, “it’s like, let’s see how it goes.”
In the meantime, Baker and Beatty are considering how the current system might be improved. They would like to expand payment options and the number of products sold, including different types of pills.
Said Beatty, “It’s been a nice reminder that no matter what’s happening on the national level ... we can still have tangible forms of community care that are long-lasting and benefit the people around us.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.