Health & Social Policy University of Texas at Austin

An Unconventional Approach to Expanding Student Health, Wellness and Privacy

In 2007, The University of Texas at Austin made local news headlines when it made Plan B available over-the-counter at the Forty Acres Pharmacy on campus. At the time, Plan B, a popular type of emergency contraceptive, or EC, was only available directly from a pharmacist or with a prescription. The move to improve access to this medicine, an essential option for student health and well-being, was an extremely forward-thinking move on UT’s part.

But a decade later, UT-Austin has failed to complete its initiative to expand access to emergency contraceptives. Accessing ECs is still a confusing and distressing process for many students, and its importance at critical moments makes expanding access and increasing privacy prudent. Thankfully, there is simple solution that UT can implement: access to EC through vending machine sales.

“Health and wellness” machines stocking ECs, condoms, pregnancy tests, ibuprofen and other essential health supplies are quickly gaining popularity at various college campuses across the United States, including Dartmouth, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford. Student groups have tirelessly campaigned for the machines, and additional EC vending machine projects are now underway at as many as 30 U.S. college campuses.

Vending machines provide a private, less stressful way to access EC, a process that can be fraught with confusion and embarrassment. Based on the experiences of many of my friends, buying EC is daunting, humiliating and invasive, especially for college students. And consider that many students need to access EC over the weekend, when campus pharmacies are closed. Though EC can be taken up to 120 hours after unprotected sex, most guidelines recommend taking it as soon as possible. Buying EC from a vending machine makes the whole process faster, easier and more discreet.

And the stress and humiliation of my friends’ experiences obtaining ECs pales in comparison to those of victims of sexual assault. Providing ECs through vending machines is an extremely easy way that UT-Austin can support sexual assault victims, especially in light of the unconscionable prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Offering this simple, practical service is a debt UT-Austin owes its students, given that it has failed to do enough to protect and support the safety and well-being of the campus community.

The thought of a vending machine selling EC may be unnerving to some, given its overtly sexual connotation. But studies show that increasing access to ECs does not increase risk-taking or “reckless” sexual behavior. Nor does it discourage use of regular contraceptive measures. Contrary to a widely erroneous myth, EC does not cause abortion: it prevents pregnancy and thus prevents abortion. And almost everyone can agree on the importance of preventing pregnancy so that students can continue their studies and graduate. The fears surrounding EC are inaccurate and its benefits indisputable.

It’s been a decade since UT-Austin made a major move to expand access to ECs on campus. Selling ECs in vending machines is a another step forward in that initiative, and provides an easy way to safeguard students’ privacy and ensure access to an essential emergency medicine. It’s time for UT-Austin to finish what it started.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Texas Tribune. Photo by Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Tribune

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