Since the spring 2021 semester, Tufts Students for National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), a student organization that fights for reproductive health and freedom, has been advocating for Tufts University to provide students with a vending machine that would offer emergency contraceptives at a reduced cost. As of now, the vending machine is said to be installed before summer 2022.
Emergency contraceptives have always been accessible to students through Health Service. In order to retrieve emergency contraceptive pills, students may go to one of the Health Service walk-in clinics, where both Plan B and Ella are offered.
However, Health Service currently is not open during the weekend, and NARAL felt that the lack of weekend hours limited students’ access to emergency contraceptives during a time period when the demand for it is greatest.
Additionally, Health Service offers emergency contraceptives for around $15, which is significantly lower than its typical cost. Without access to Health Service's emergency contraceptives over the weekend, students may have to go to off-campus drugstores, where the going rate for emergency contraceptives is around $50.
Aneri Parikh,co-president of NARAL, explained that this issue is what spurred the organization to urge Tufts to install an emergency contraceptive vending machine.
“We just think it's really unfair that students would have to rush over to CVS or another store last minute to buy emergency contraceptives, such as Plan B, at really high prices when Health Service does offer them for about $15,” Parikh, a senior, said.
Parikh added that on top of the increased cost of emergency contraceptives at off-campus locations, the walk or drive over to an off-campus drugstore also costs time and money. The vending machine would allow students to have consistent access to a low-cost emergency contraceptive at a central location on campus.
Parikh also acknowledged that some students may not be able to afford the $15 for the emergency contraceptives offered by the machine. To address that concern, NARAL plans to create a voucher system for students.
“We're aware that some people might not be able to pay the $15 price for Plan B and so we want to fundraise for that and offer vouchers to students who can't afford it and create a type of pay-it-forward system,” Parikh said.
Although the vending machine would increase the accessibility of emergency contraceptives, NARAL member Sabrina Rangwani noted that it is also essential to ensure that the machine still maintains student safety. When a person purchases emergency contraceptives at a drugstore or from Health Service, they are typically given information about potential side effects, as well as the overall effect that emergency contraceptives have on one's body. Rangwani explained that the vending machine would mimic this in-person interaction by including a QR code. When scanned, the QR code provides a list of the potential side effects of the emergency contraceptives, and then prompts students to take a quiz, which they must successfully complete in order to use the machine.
“You just fill [the quiz] out so that you understand the caveats of Plan B, like that you can only take it a certain number of times within a month because what it does is delay your ovulation cycle, and you can't do that infinitely,” Rangwani, a sophomore, said. “And [there are] possible interactions that [Plan B] can have with other drugs that you're taking.”
NARAL developed the idea for an emergency contraceptive vending machine after seeing it successfully implemented on other college campuses.
“We've heard of other colleges such as ... Stanford, Brandeis, UC Davis, who all have these emergency contraception vending machines, and we think that it is essentially the right step for us,” Parikh said.
The organization began to plan to implement an emergency contraceptive vending machine last semester, reaching out to a member of Health Service for support. From the start, Health Service strongly supported the idea.
Ariel Watriss, a nurse practitioner and sexual health specialist at Tufts Health Service outlined Health Service’s response to the emergency contraceptive vending machine initiative.
“We were very open to the idea. The timing was actually incredible,” Watriss wrote in an email to the Daily. “Independently, our Director of Administration and Operations for Health and Wellness, Jennifer Berrios, was looking into this option as well. We’ve been aware of needing to maintain access to care for students beyond our clinical hours, which had to change due to the pandemic.”
Watriss added that Health Service will cover costs for this project and that Tufts’ C.A.R.E. team will be providing the products. The products included in the machine will not be limited to emergency contraceptives, but will also include items like condoms and lube.
Parikh mentioned that providing other types of products within the vending machine could increase students’ privacy when using the machine.
"There might be … somewhat of a stigma around emergency contraception,” Parikh said. “This way, people could really get access to anything and no one would really know what you're purchasing.”
NARAL member Nyssa Singhal explained that another way that NARAL and Health Service are working to increase students’ privacy when using the vending machine is by finding a quiet location to house it, while also keeping it mind that the machine couldn’t be placed too far away from students.
“I think we wanted it to be central, so it wasn't really far [from students],” Singhal, a junior, said. “And we wanted it to be a little more private, so it wasn't like the Campus Center ... I think the Campus Center would be a little overwhelming.”
Although the location for the vending machine has not been selected yet, Rangwani mentioned the Olin Center as a possible location that both NARAL and Health Service are considering.
Rangwani described some of the factors that make Olin a strong contender for the machine’s location.
“It's more private, and it's open really late,” Rangwani said. “I think it's the building that is open the latest on campus. And so it'll be available, I think, until 3 a.m."
Watriss expressed that NARAL and Health Service hope to have the vending machine set up sometime before summer 2022, though Parikh noted that this may have to be delayed due to having to coordinate with multiple different actors.
In the meantime, Tufts Students for NARAL is continuing to advocate for reproductive health and freedom through other means, such as campaigning against abortion laws across the country,namely the recent abortion law in Texas.
Singhal noted that the organization acknowledges that it is a privilege to be able to offer the emergency contraceptive vending machines, as well as low-cost emergency contraceptives, at a time when abortion laws seek to restrict reproductive autonomy across the country.
“With the new laws in Texas, and even broadening globally, I think it's important to always keep reproductive access in mind,” Singhal said. “We are lucky [to pay] $15 for Plan B [when] there are a lot of people who can’t imagine that. It's a reminder to pay that forward, and remember that it’s not like that for everybody."