Emergency contraceptives are often surrounded with stigma and difficult to access. „Barriers like cost, reliance on parents to use insurance/payment method, distance from distributors, and hours that they operate all inhibit many young people from being able to choose to use emergency contraceptives,” claims Piper. „Because of this, as well as gaps in knowledge about how/whether to use these products, the potential benefits of this option are often inaccessible for young people.” Piper’s project addresses this by offering an on-campus, subsidized, discreet option to purchase emergency contraceptives.
Piper worked as Peer Health Educator at Take Control Initiative Tulsa where she learned about barriers to accessing reproductive health products and care in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the school year, Piper and her fellow educators learned about sex education resources in the state and worked on projects that seek to promote safe sex and inclusive sex education. She was inspired to work on the Wellness Vending machine project at her own university as she learned more about emergency contraceptives, their benefits, and the stigma surrounding them. In Oklahoma, Piper learned that they are still kept behind counters and in locked boxes even though it is legal to sell them over the counter in the general store area. She became interested in the stigma surrounding these products and ways to interrogate barriers to accessing them for her peers.
Piper researched the safety, cost, and use of emergency contraceptives, distributed a survey to students at her university to gauge their knowledge about the use and safety of these products as well as about their understanding of the barriers to accessing emergency contraceptives (both for themselves and their peers). Finally, she and other individuals involved in the project pitched the idea and accompanying research to TU administrators and to the student association, both of whom cleared the project. With this clearance, a vending machine should be installed on campus in a gender neutral, 24 hour bathroom in the student union within the next few years as they continue to research funding and product options.
I was really surprised at the results of my survey and of the project as a whole.
Although her university is predominantly Christian, an overwhelming percentage of students said they would support a project like this and the administration has been very supportive. While researching emergency contraceptives, she had come across multiple instances of religious conflicts with their use, which is why she expected to find some pushback from students. Similarly, going into the pitches to the administration, Piper expected that they would be hesitant to support a project like this, but was surprised that they were even willing to help fund its implementation.
The University of Tulsa, at the time that Piper was working on researching and pitching this idea, was undergoing several changes in leadership. They recently changed university presidents as well as several key administrators involved in overseeing projects like this. Because of these changes, Piper and the others involved in this project focused on creating resources for future students to be able to draw from in the future in order to continue this project regardless of the individuals involved (both on TU’s side and on their own).
The next steps for this project are to secure funding sources to purchase a vending machine to install on campus as well as a longterm funding source to stock these machines and potentially further subsidize the cost of the products in them. Generally, emergency contraceptives are $50+, but should be under $10 in the campus machine. Piper will continue to work on this project by creating educational materials to distribute around campus about how to and whether to use emergency contraceptives to promote informed choices about family planning and reproductive health. Others might get involved by sponsoring similar projects in universities or public spaces in their own cities! These stigmas and barriers exist all around the world and can be mitigated by creating opportunities for individuals to choose to use emergency contraceptives without fear of judgment and at an accessible cost.