By Madeleine Simon
Vending machines aren’t just for buying potato chips and soda anymore. Universities across the country are now offering sexual-health products like emergency contraceptives, pregnancy tests, and condoms in their vending machines.
While the Trump administration continues to limit access to birth control by rolling back mandates in the Affordable Care Act, college students are spearheading projects that increase the availability of sexual health products on their campuses. Hadyn Bryan, a sophomore at Boise State University, is one such student.
Earlier this summer, Bryan pushed school administrators to install a “Health and Wellness” vending machine that carries, along with other over-the-counter medications, the Plan B pill, lubricant, and pregnancy tests. Administrators were on board, and Bryan is now hopeful that the machines will be installed by the end of this semester.
Plan B is an emergency contraceptive that delays the release of an egg from the ovary and prevents a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. It’s often mistaken for the “abortion pill,” but it does not end a pregnancy. Plan B is just one of the health products offered in Boise State’s “wellness” vending machines, including ibuprofen, lip balm, and pads and tampons.
“We’re, as a society, becoming more accepting to the fact that people need certain things and we want people to have access to those in the most easy and comfortable ways that they can,” Bryan said. “I’ve seen students taking advantage, not in a bad way, but taking advantage of the power that they have within their university to actually create impactful change.”
Boise State is now one of several colleges that have a “wellness” vending machine, including Stanford University, University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of California, Davis.
Shippensburg University was one of the first colleges in the county to offer Plan B, also known as the morning-after pill, in a vending machine in 2012. But this year, as word spread in part through social media, more students are creating similar vending-machine initiatives at their school.
Bryan, for instance, got the idea to start his project after watching a Snapchat story about the program at U.C. Davis.
“If I see someone at U.C. Davis that started a project then that would definitely motivate me because I can see that students actually do have power,” Bryan said. “Students actually do have the ability to change the situation that they’re in. So that’s just really empowering and important.”
Even though Boise State already offered emergency contraceptives through their health center, Bryan wanted to expand these services to increase student’s access and privacy when purchasing what can often be very personal medications.
Bryan said the university health services aren’t open in the afternoon or weekends when people typically need products like Plan B and condoms. The library, where Bryan hopes to install the vending machine, is open most hours of the day, everyday of the week and through finals week, Bryan said.
“All young people have the right to lead healthy lives,” said Kinjo Kiema, the Youth Activist Network Coordinator at the nonprofit Advocates for Youth. “If they have the right to lead healthy lives then we need to give them the tools they need to protect their health, which includes access to condoms, contraceptives, and a full array of reproductive health care services.”
Advocates for Youth partner with youth leadership organizations to spearhead policies and programs that give young people access to and information about sexual health services.
In this political climate, increasing access to these health services is becoming more essential. “Wellness” vending machines provide students affordable contraceptives at a time when their health insurers can decide to deny them coverage of these products.
“The administration is trying to limit access to contraception by removing the birth control co-pay benefits under the Affordable Care Act,” Kiema said. “And this will impact young people in particular because before this administration they had never had a copay for birth control and now they do have that extra expense. At this particular moment, access to contraception like condoms, like Plan B is more important than ever.”
The privacy and anonymity offered by these vending machines provides a particular service to a group of students often left in the shadows: survivors of sexual assault.
“There’s a need for students to privately be able to purchase their own items with the ease and accessibility of getting it in places where they’re already going to be,” Bryan said. “But victims of sexual assault definitely need an easy and reliable way to purchase Plan B. There’s definitely those situations, even that I’ve personally seen, where a person could’ve used that support.”
At Boise State, Stanford University and U.C. Davis, students were the ones who approached their university about installing “wellness” vending machines. Boise State administrators were not only open to the idea, but encouraged Bryan to take on the project himself to keep it a student-led initiative, Bryan said.
“This isn’t a philanthropy. This isn’t a fundraiser,” Bryan said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is an immediate way to see change on campus. There’s something almost intoxicating about having the power to create physical, positive change that will be realized in your time at the school.”