Students at New England universities are organizing to install emergency contraceptive vending machines on their campuses to increase access to sexual health resources following the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
Although abortion remains legal in the region, many university students are concerned about access to contraceptives because they come from states where abortion has been banned or threatened in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in June.
A Northeastern University student group focused on reproductive justice has petitioned the school to install a 24/7, on-campus Plan B vending machine that would offer a generic version of what is known as the morning after pill. As of Monday, 138 students had signed the petition.
“Emergency contraception is a last resort in a sense. It’s also the first resort that we’re going to be giving because it’s the most prominent time of need,” said Finn Seifert, treasurer of the group, Northeastern University Sexual Health Advocacy, Resources, and Education, or NU SHARE. “The reason that we’re looking toward a vending machine is a lot of other schools have done it and have had a lot of success.”
Northeastern said it plans to make emergency contraceptives easily available to students for upcoming semesters, but did not have a date for when vending machines might be installed.
“Although supply chain issues are delaying the installment of emergency contraception vending machines on campus, we will have a temporary solution for the fall semester,” university officials said in a statement. “We are making an existing vending machine available to dispense emergency contraception at a location that is accessible 24/7.”
There was local interest in emergency contraceptive vending machines on campuses even before the court decision. In March, Boston University installed a machine, while Brandeis University installed one in 2019.
Elsewhere, the student government at the University of Florida voted unanimously last month in favor of installing a machine, while Stanford University and the University of California Davis both installed machines in 2017, and Yale University in 2018.
A bill signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker on Friday that broadens access to abortion in Massachusetts includes a provision confirming that vending machines can be used to provide emergency contraceptives such as Plan B, though not prescription drugs or devices intended to prevent pregnancy or conception.
Levonorgestrel, whose brand name is Plan B, is a singular pill most effective when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Like other forms of contraception, the pill prevents pregnancy by preventing ovulation and fertilization of an egg and is not related to abortion.
Student advocates and experts say vending machines with emergency contraceptives could reduce social, financial, and transportation barriers to sexual health resources in post-Roe America.
Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said on-campus access would eliminate the need to go to a pharmacy to purchase such products.
“There are still challenges to get to a pharmacy. That’s why I think the vending machines are so brilliant,” Childs-Roshak said. “You just walk down the hall in your dorm.”
Students at the University of Southern Maine have been working to increase access to sexual health resources since 2015. Emma Donnelly, a graduate student who is leading the effort across University of Maine campuses, said inability to access resources is common in rural areas.
Donnelly kickstarted her efforts to establish vending machines for emergency contraceptives in 2019 after contacting her state representative about signing a bill into law legalizing machines that sell over-the-counter medications, including Plan B. The demise of Roe v. Wade makes Donnelly feel her effort to give people other options is more essential than ever.
“Having many options in how you want to pursue your reproductive health is really important,” she said. “And that is really on the line for so many people.”
A large barrier to emergency contraceptives is money, especially for marginalized communities, advocates said. The products inside BU’s vending machine cost $7.25, according to a BU spokesperson, compared to retail prices as high as $50 in stores like CVS.
Members of NU SHARE said emergency contraceptives can be purchased in bulk to be sold at affordable prices. Logistics, such as determining who will pay to stock the machines at Northeastern University, are still being worked out.
Experts said cultural stigma associated with sex is another barrier to emergency contraceptives. Childs-Roshak of Planned Parenthood said lack of proper sex education feeds into stigma surrounding sexual health resources like birth control, condoms, and emergency contraceptives. Installing emergency contraceptive vending machines could make people realize it’s an available alternative.
”If [people] don’t have access to an abortion, understanding how your body works and being able to prevent a pregnancy if you’re not ready to be a parent yet is really important,” Childs-Roshak said.
Students involved in the effort agree that vending machines could also ease social barriers to emergency contraceptives, especially for nonbinary and transgender students.
Gender-nonconforming students could be hesitant to go to a university health center or pharmacy to access emergency contraceptives, Donnelly said, because it could mean unwillingly exposing one’s assigned gender at birth.
“[Vending machines] add an aspect of anonymity to it,” Donnelly said.
The University of Maine system said it is “exploring how vending services on our campuses may be expanded to include sales of some nonprescription medications.”
Matt Stout and Samantha Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.