Aiza Saeed keeps pulling friends down to the basement of the student center on George Washington University’s campus to show them the new vending machine. There, alongside Advil and tampons, are emergency contraception pills, commonly known as “morning-after” pills.
“You could get Doritos and Plan B at the same time,” Saeed said, using the brand name for one type of emergency contraceptive pills.
She and Neharika Rao, a sophomore from California and fellow student government leader, led the effort after a suggestion by the student association president after last year’s Supreme Court Dobbs ruling on abortion rights.
Christian Zidouemba, president of the student association at GWU, is originally from Burkina Faso and said that cultural norms there make some health products taboo. But he understood that it’s important for students here to have access to them.
After hearing how strongly students felt about having Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — who voted in the majority to overturn Roe v. Wade — teach at the law school (some demanded that Thomas be fired), Zidouemba felt pressure to respond. He didn’t agree that Thomas should be fired. But he researched other ideas to respond to students’ concerns about the Dobbs ruling; that’s how he learned about the vending machines.
The vending-machine company is supplying the pills and neither the school nor the students purchased or subsidized the product, according to a university spokeswoman. GWU previously offered emergency contraception through its student health center.
Many college health centers make emergency contraception pills available to students. But even when that’s the case, they may be too expensive for students or unavailable when they really need them — often at night or over the weekend. At a growing number of schools across the country, student activists have worked to make sure emergency contraception is easily available and affordable.
There has been a tremendous amount of interest in emergency contraception since the Dobbs ruling, and in particular in the on-campus programs, said Kelly Cleland, executive director of the American Society for Emergency Contraception. The nonprofit helps college students expand access to the products through its “Emergency Contraception for Every Campus” program. She said it has worked with students at more than 70 campuses in 31 states.
Morning-after pills have been available for about 20 years, and sold over the counter without restrictions since 2014.
About a decade ago, the pills were added to a vending machine at a public university in Pennsylvania, Cleland said. Now there are about 32 campuses that have similar machines, she said. Many offer the pills at a far lower price than at pharmacies, where a $50 price tag is not unusual.
At GWU, the pills in the vending machine — offered in a generic form — now cost $30 plus tax, according to a university spokeswoman.
Rao said some students had wanted to make sure that families’ tuition dollars weren’t subsidizing the pills, and the sophomore said they are not.
GWU Students for Life did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Shaohannah Faith, capital area regional coordinator for Students for Life of America, wrote in an email on Monday that the university’s decision to distribute the pills “with the same readiness as candy and chips is reckless and disappointing.” It shows a lack of concern for the health of women on their campus, she wrote, and is alarming.
Zidouemba said he has heard from students asking for lower prices for the pills — and for more machines, in dorms where they can easily get to them when they need them. “Overall the reaction is we need this on our campus,” he said, “and we need to make sure it’s less expensive and more discreet so people can purchase it.”
Rao said that they hope, in the future, to subsidize costs even more.
“We have applied for grants,” Saeed said.
This story has been updated to reflect a price increase in the pills.