Sarah Riback doesn’t have personal experience with getting the pills on campus. But the 19-year-old at the University of Maryland knows peers who have needed them. “This is a common thing that a lot of other female students have had to do,” she said.
She’s talking about emergency contraception. Riback and other advocates say morning-after pills should be available on college campuses at all hours.
At U-Md., they’re available at a student health center pharmacy that is open 36 hours a week, Monday through Friday.
“Unlike a business, a student’s sex life does not operate on a 9-5 schedule, and because of this, access to emergency contraceptives should not operate on a schedule,” Riback, a government and politics major from Baltimore, wrote this month in the student newspaper the Diamondback.
Experts say the morning-after pill works best the sooner one takes it after unprotected sex. Students who need it sometimes don’t want to wait for health centers to open. One option to solve this problem on some campuses is a simple vending machine.
About 1,000 students from six college campuses in Maryland have signed petitions in support of 24-7 campus access to over-the-counter emergency contraception, according to NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.
This year, a Maryland lawmaker proposed a bill to require that level of access at public colleges and universities. Its chances don’t seem great. The legislation from Del. Marice I. Morales (D-Montgomery), HB 1205, has stalled in Annapolis.
A woman named Alice — who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy — submitted testimony on the bill to lawmakers that relayed her own experience as a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Alice, who graduated from the public college in 2015, told The Washington Post that she and her boyfriend were “very careful” about birth control but that during her sophomore year, their birth control failed. So she visited the student health center for the morning-after pill.
The staff acted “coldly,” she said, and left her feeling ashamed. Afterward, she was hesitant to visit the health center again.
“Just because I had a negative experience doesn’t mean women in the future should, too,” Alice said.
St. Mary’s spokesman Michael Bruckler confirmed that Alice was a student at the college. The school provides emergency contraception to students when its wellness center is open, he wrote in an email, and is looking into options for 24-7 access.
Bruckler said the college’s wellness center policies about emergency contraception had “changed drastically” in the past few years.
“We welcome student feedback and continue to adjust our policies and procedures in order to meet the needs of our students,” he wrote. “For instance, our policy used to require students to meet with a provider in order to obtain emergency contraception, but we changed that policy once we realized that it was not an effective or accessible model.”
The federal government first approved emergency contraception for prescription use in the 1990s. Debate over access to the drug continued for years until it became available to women of all ages, without a prescription, in 2013.
Plan B One-Step generally costs about $40 to $50, according to a legislative analysis of the Maryland bill, and generics cost about $35 to $45.
At U-Md., students can obtain emergency contraception at the university’s pharmacy when it is open on weekdays. They also can get it at off-campus pharmacies in College Park.
The Post asked U-Md. whether it would consider providing 24-7 access to the pill on the campus of the 38,000-student university even if the bill dies. But university officials declined to discuss a hypothetical situation.
“The University of Maryland prides itself on providing convenient and high-quality health care and services for our students, faculty and staff,” U-Md. spokeswoman Katie Lawson said in a statement. “We are aware of the pending legislation and will monitor any new developments.”
The Morales bill did not dictate how schools should make emergency contraception available at all hours. But the legislative analysis estimated that obtaining a vending machine would cost less than $4,000.
Vending machines have popped up on various campuses since Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania made headlines in 2012 for using one to sell emergency contraceptives.
A machine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire sells emergency contraceptives as well as nasal spray, pain medication and cough drops. Pomona College has one, too, in a residence hall.
“This is a common-sense measure for colleges and universities,” said Miriam Feldblum, dean of students at the private college in California. “So we have been getting, over the years, more colleges and universities who have heard about it, who are trying to figure out how to implement these kinds of vending machines.”
At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the director of the student health and wellness center said she can see a “potential downside” to vending machines because they don’t provide information to consumers.
“College students are still learning to navigate the health-care system and can benefit from guidance by a trained health-care professional,” the director, Roanna Kessler, said.
At Hopkins, students who need emergency contraception are asked to make an appointment, Kessler said, but they are almost always seen the same day. The pills are available at a campus pharmacy when it is open. After hours, a nurse will direct students to follow up at the health center or go to a local pharmacy off campus.
Kessler said she would be fine with a campus vending machine in theory, especially if the contraception comes with educational materials.
“Of course I would prefer students to come to the health center where they would get more comprehensive care, education, and a lower fee for the medication,” she wrote.
At Towson University in Baltimore County, students can get emergency contraception at the health center during regular business hours, said Deb Moriarty, vice president for student affairs.
“For us, the important part of that is the educational component that would go with the distribution of emergency contraception,” she said.
From time to time, Moriarty said, students have raised the idea of 24-7 access.
“I think that the concern is, if you just make it available without any kind of educational or personal conversation with the individual, will this become a pattern that repeats itself?” Moriarty said.