Boston campus contraception vending machines promise contraceptive access but pose unexpected challenges, reproductive justice advocates say

“Our goal is to create that sense of empowerment.”


Photo: Melissa Clavijo

Students at the relaunching of a new vending machine at Boston University organized by Students for Reproductive Freedom got access to various types of sexual health resources. Credits: Melissa Clavijo

Melissa Clavijo, Reporter

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A student group at Boston University went viral last spring after it successfully lobbied the school to install emergency contraception vending machines on campus. But, as the students have learned in recent months, this seemingly simple resource faced various hurdles. 

BU’s Students for Reproductive Freedom drew national media attention after the group debuted an emergency contraceptive vending machine in March. Its advocates see it as a tool to help protect access to basic reproductive healthcare in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. 

The tables at the BU event offered students free generic Plan B, condoms, dental dams, and more. Credits: Melissa Clavijo (Photo: Melissa Clavijo)

Students at BU and elsewhere are optimistic about the machines’ potential and are finding ways to solve logistical problems as they emerge.

“The distributor changed the size of the box, and it didn’t fit,” said Mackenzie Pike, co-president of BU’s organization. Because of this, the organization had to purchase a new machine that was relaunched on Tuesday, October 18, 2022. This new equipment offers a generic version of Plan B, Ella prescriptions, and at-home STI test kits. 

Plan B is an over-the-counter drug that doesn’t usually require a doctor consultation or prescription. However, it is less effective when taken by individuals over 150 lbs. That’s why BU’s vending machine will also provide Ella prescriptions. This brand can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure. 

The student organization formed an alliance with TBD Health, a sexual health platform and provider. Daphne Chen, the co-founder of TBD Health, said that after the fall of Roe, the company received “a lot of outreach from college students who want to bring sexual health resources to their campus.” 

The older vending machine had to be replaced because it didn’t fit the new sizes of the product. Credits: Melissa Clavijo (Photo: Melissa Clavijo)

Pike said there were both positive and negative sides to the attention the group received after their project went viral on social media. 

“We had some comments with people saying we were providing abortions, and that we’re supporting women’s bad choices, which is obviously not true,” said Pike.  

The trial period of BU’s vending machine was successful enough to add a variety of products. According to Pike, having the machine in a public space “gets rid of the stigma and makes everybody feel welcomed.” 

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley was a guest speaker at the event, where she encouraged students to keep advocating for their reproductive rights. Credits: Melissa Clavijo (Photo: Melissa Clavijo)

Other universities in Boston and beyond are considering similar approaches to improve access to contraception. 

Northeastern students are currently working on getting a vending machine on campus. In 2021, the BU group met Northeastern’s student organization which also works in sexual health advocacy. Both groups are part of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action Network, a program that provides funding to young advocates around the country. 

According to Ren Birnholz, president of the Northeastern student group, their vending machine will offer generic Plan B, condoms, internal condoms, dental dams, and more. Students recognize that this type of machine may not be accessible to people with low vision or to people who experience intense anxiety. The Northeastern machine will have accessibility features like online information with an alternative text. 

The machine will be installed in the  Marino Center’s atrium on Huntington Avenue, a space on campus open to the public. Birnholz wants it to be a community resource, a place where “people on the street could pop in and get in if they needed to.”

“Our goal is to create that sense of empowerment,” said Birnholz. The Northeastern group organizes informational sessions on campus for the whole community. “We had an emergency contraception meeting about two weeks ago, and I was just amazed at how many of the people shared their experiences using contraceptives. It’s so stigmatized, and so many people at the meeting thought they were the only ones who’ve ever had to do it.”

These projects are drawing accolades from the broader reproductive justice community. “The BU and Northeastern chapters have done incredible work in leading conversations on sexual and reproductive health,” said Caroline Kimball-Katz, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts. Kimball-Katz added that these vending machines offer more privacy than a pharmacy, thereby protecting people’s identities and reducing stigma.

The installation of vending machines across campuses isn’t the only way reproductive justice advocates are working to improve access to contraception and abortion care across campuses. Barnard College, a private women’s college in New York City, will give students access to abortion pills as soon as the fall of next year, school officials announced

Legislators are trying to make this a possibility for public schools. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed Bill H.5090 in July, making the state the second in the nation to ensure that college students have access to medication abortion.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Democrat from Massachusetts’ 1st Hampshire District. The Massachusetts bill calls for state universities and community colleges to create an “abortion readiness plan” to educate and inform students about their reproductive health options. Those plans must be submitted to the Department of Public Health by November 30, 2023.

“That’s the next step for us,” Birnholz said.

Update: The machine at Boston University was up and running until October 31st, when it was reportedly vandalized, as per The Daily Free Press.