For five years before I came to Pomona College, I volunteered for Planned Parenthood. While working there, I learned a great deal, from data and statistics to teaching strategies to the uncomfortable truth that no matter how excited you might be about something, sometimes you need to step back, calm down, and strategize in order to be successful. Having a vending machine on campus to dispense emergency contraception would be an incredibly meaningful step for the college to take, and it’s a step I would support wholeheartedly—as long as it is done thoughtfully and thoroughly.
We are constantly told as Pomona students that we have access to nearly everything we could ever want. If the club you want to join doesn’t exist, start it and the school will fund it. If you want to do an original research project over the summer, apply for funding from the school and you could spend June and July in Greece or Botswana. It seems natural, then, to think that if you want more access to emergency contraception, just ask and you shall receive.
Unfortunately, a Plan B vending machine has the potential for much larger consequences, both positive and negative, than a 5C Step Team. Thus, it requires more consideration. The vending machine holds an incredible possibility for doing good, but it could have devastating consequences for the fight for women’s right to access if we rush into it without complete consideration of the repercussions it will certainly have in the local and national community.
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania is the only school in the country that has a Plan B vending machine, and it is located in a very small town over two hours away from a major metropolitan area. Prior to the installation of the vending machine in 2010, the only nearby option for students who wanted to purchase emergency contraception was the small town pharmacy—their college health services didn’t offer it.
Pomona, however, is located in a mid-sized town surrounded by metropolitan areas. There are three Planned Parenthood locations within 10 miles of campus, including one that is only a mile and a half away. Student Health Services (SHS) sells Plan B for $20, which is almost certainly cheaper than it would be from the vending machine. There are also many pharmacies nearby, including a 24-hour Walgreens within three miles of campus.
Shippensburg’s argument was one of access. Pomona’s could not be. Students have access to emergency contraception. Could access be better? Yes. Should it be better? Of course. But Pomona does not have an access problem like Shippensburg does. We have a public health issue, not an access issue. Access should always be increased. Currently, SHS requires students to sit down with a nurse before being sold Plan B, despite the fact that it is an over-the-counter medication. A vending machine would eliminate this sometimes-deterring procedure.
Before proceeding, the students and the college need to recognize that this is a controversial step. It would certainly spark investigation by the FDA, as well as possible backlash from the surrounding community and even the other colleges. The college will need to conduct conversations about how we will restrict access to the machine in order to comply with the federal law that all purchasers must be 17 or older. Will we use a swipe machine? If so, how do we make sure students’ identities are protected? What if an under-17 student enrolls at Pomona? Do we provide access to the other 5Cs? These are all questions we need to be asking.
We also need to consider how to educate students about the medication. Associated Students of Pomona College is hoping to partner with Health Education Outreach and SHS, so we must consider how to make students aware of the facts: Plan B is safe and effective, but its effectiveness decreases over time. It is not recommended for frequent use. It does not protect against sexually transmitted infections. It is not a substitute for other birth control methods. Above all, emergency contraception is a Plan B, not a Plan A.
If we, as a community, want to go through with this—and I personally think it is an incredible opportunity to lead the way on an important, albeit contentious, issue—we need to make sure we do it right. Because worse than not installing a vending machine would be installing one just to have it removed in some widely publicized scandal. We should pursue this, but we need to be absolutely sure going forward that we aren’t going to ruin it for anyone else. Hopefully, in the future, contraceptive vending machines will be widely available, but at this point they are not, and we should help that process rather than hinder it.