A little more than a year ago, during the same week that the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced that it would no longer provide funds to Planned Parenthood, Shippensburg University, a previously little-known state college in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, captured media attention throughout the United States. The sudden spotlight on Shippensburg came as a result of a decision administrators had made five semesters earlier—at the end of the fall 2009 term—to sell Plan B Emergency Contraception (EC) from a vending machine located in a remote corner of the campus.
According to Dr. Peter M. Gigliotti, Executive Director for University Communications and Marketing at Shippensburg, roughly 300 students a year had swiped their college IDs to obtain access to the machine in the two-and-a-half years it had been operating. Each was given an opportunity to confer with a counselor in person or by phone before inserting $25 to obtain Levonorgestrel, AKA Plan B, a medication that prevents fertilization, preventing pregnancy if taken with 72 hours of unprotected intercourse.
Gigliotti believes that someone on campus—he does not know if it was a disgruntled student, faculty member, or staff person—tipped off the press that Shippensburg had a Plan B vending machine and within hours the story was garnering headlines and energizing anti-choice and abstinence-only advocates across the country. ”What we did by making Plan B available in a vending machine is very emotional for a lot of people,” he begins. “When the story broke we immediately received more than 1000 calls and emails. Right away it became clear to us that people were confused about what Plan B is and how it works. The largest number of contacts came from people who oppose Plan B on a moral or religious basis and they did not want to listen to facts. In their minds Plan B is an abortion and no amount of scientific information will change their minds. They told us that we were killing babies and were all going to go to Hell.”
In addition, impassioned callers berated college administrators, arguing that they were kowtowing to the demands of a misinformed student body, 85 percent of whom had previously indicated—through a 2008 student survey—that they wanted on-campus access to the drug. “My ‘favorite’ email asked us if we would give dynamite to our students if 85 percent of them wanted it,” he laughs. “It was absurd. What they failed to recognize is that Plan B is legal and available in most pharmacies, without a prescription, to anyone who is over the age of 17.”
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That said, Gigliotti notes that there are no 24-hour pharmacies in the town of Shippensburg, so having a vending machine on campus allows immediate access to the time-sensitive medication—access that students might otherwise not have. And Shippensburg is far from the only college offering Plan B to students. Gigliotti says that Emergency Contraception is offered on all 14 of the state’s public university campuses. What’ more, while Shippensburg is the only school utilizing a vending machine, student health services on most U.S. campuses provide the drug to all who request it.
In fact, The American College Health Association, a 93-year-old organization that represents one quarter of the nation’s 4000-plus two- and four-year universities and colleges, conducted a survey in 2010 and found that 83.3 percent of its member schools dispense EC. Some, like Brooklyn, New York’s Pratt Institute, and New York City’s New School University, provide it to students for free. “We don’t want money to be a barrier to access,” says Jayne Jordan of the New School Student Health Service. “A student can walk in without an appointment and simply ask for Plan B. We get four or five requests for it each week. Counseling is offered but is not mandatory and a student never has to disclose why she needs the pill.”
The vast majority, she continues, are eager to talk and tell members of the counseling staff about an accident that occurred, typically that a condom broke or that she forgot to take her pill. “Sometimes she’s also concerned about sexually transmitted infections and we always ask if she was raped,” Jordan says. ”As we continue talking, we make it a point to tell her about the side effects of Plan B, that she may feel nauseous and have a late or early period or spotting. We also talk about not relying on Plan B as contraception but our overall approach is harm reduction.”
Similarly, Martha Cedarholm, Director of Health and Counseling at Pratt, says that Plan B is also dispensed on her campus without charge; like the New School, counseling is offered but not mandated. This protocol is followed on most campuses—from Tulane in New Orleans to UC Berkeley and Princeton—and while many schools, like Shippensburg, charge a small fee for EC, the issue of quick access is always placed front and center.
Gigliotti reports that protests at Shippensburg have, for the most part, died down and 300 or so students a year continue to buy the drug from the College machine. Nonetheless, the anti-choice movement has continued to fixate on opposing EC. Groups including the Family Research Council and Students for Life, for example, miss no opportunity to spread misinformation claiming that EC is an abortion-causing drug, facts be damned.
Gigliotti concedes that he is frustrated by people who refuse to listen to scientific evidence. “Using Plan B is a personal choice,” he concludes. “The college is not saying that students should purchase it but we’re making it available so that those who want to take personal responsibility and avoid an unwanted pregnancy can do so.” Indeed, the vending machine has been given a green light by the Food and Drug Administration. “This is not a regulatory issue,” Gigliotti adds, “but the FDA has said that it is okay for us to sell Plan B by vending machine as a service to our students.”
Since few campus health centers are open 24-7, and since so-called “conscience clauses” in many states allow pharmacists to refuse to stock Emergency Contraception, Shippensburg’s innovative approach to insuring around-the-clock access deserves to be considered by college administrators everywhere. The antis will wail and howl, of course. Nonetheless, since EC clearly reduces the incidence of unplanned pregnancies, making it available wherever humans congregate—both on and off-campus—makes good, pragmatic sense.