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Moms Talk: Plan B Vending Machine on College Campus

In this week’s Moms Talk we discuss the controversial emergency contraception vending machine in the health center at Shippensburg University.

Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania has caught quite a bit of heat lately over a vending machine on its campus. Students at the university can purchase Plan B, an emergency contraceptive, by putting $25 into the machine.

Like most things, there are people on both sides of this controversy. Some think it’s a great thing, and others think… well, that it’s not so great.

"Right to Life" groups are up in arms about the machine. Anna Franzonello, counsel to Americans United For Life, has been quoted as saying, "Students at Shippensburg University deserve better than to have their administration represent the potent drug with life-ending potential as no more harmful than any other vending machine item."

It’s important to realize three things about Plan B and the vending machine. First of all, Plan B is not an abortion pill. It does not terminate pregnancy. It merely ups the chances of preventing a pregnancy from occurring if taken within a very specific time frame. The drug has been approved as an over-the-counter medication for women ages 17 and up. At this time, it’s kept behind the pharmacy counter and must be requested.

Secondly, the vending machine is located inside the university’s health center. Students and faculty are the only ones who can access the center, and students must check in at the front desk. The vending machine is not located in a dark, unmonitored alleyway on campus.

Lastly, the vending machine dispenses the product for less than students would pay in a pharmacy, and it offers a certain amount of anonymity that would understandably be comforting to students who might need to take advantage of Plan B.

You’ve probably already guessed my position on this topic, but as I’m supposed to give my personal opinion in these columns, I’ll spell it out. I like it.

I freely admit that my personal experience of becoming pregnant with my first child when I was a teenage college freshman probably influences my opinion heavily, but there it is. I like the idea that someone who might have had their head screwed on improperly the night before or experienced a failure with other methods of birth control can find something in a convenient, relatively anonymous location that might help prevent a life-changing event.

Some of my friends feel differently. A lot of them are worried about the possible outcome of, in my friend Jenn’s words, “dispensing drugs like candy.” 

Others, like my friend Jennifer, feel it creates too much risk for misuse. Like she said, “You can’t even buy Sudafed without going to the counter.”

My husband feels the same way. He doesn’t have a problem with the drug or its purpose, but it makes him nervous to have it readily available for young people to use without a doctor or pharmacist consultation.

I get that, and I respect their opinions. I even share those concerns. For me, however, it doesn't outweigh the benefit.

My friend Becca is a student at an Ivy League university. She is in favor of the vending machine being on campus, and she presented her opinion so eloquently that I felt it would be a shame to paraphrase. I’m just going to quote her here:

“It's available over the counter if you're over 17, so it makes little difference here since students in a college health center are likely over 17. Plus, men can also get it, so as long as one partner is over 17 no one needs a prescription. So there are only good things to say about privacy and encouraging women to actually procure the pills if they need it instead of avoiding it out of embarrassment.

The negative arguments would maybe make vast claims on what it means to commodify access to emergency contraceptives and say we're just encouraging the moral decline of our women. The negative could argue that making emergency contraception like buying a coke overnormalizes a terrible, terrible decision (sex, whether unprotected or failed protected) and makes taking initiative, ie getting the pills, an act of acceptance.

Of course this rhetoric is paternal and repugnant as it rejects the personal agency of women and threatens to control their oh so dangerous sexuality by arguing that it's for their own good. Those women will unravel the fabric of our nation if they can control when they get pregnant. That kind of thing.

Even if no one uses the machine, I think it sends a useful message to the students on that campus and opens up conceptual space for the women to consider their own sexuality as normal and manageable, instead of the frightening specter of stirrups and WebMd.”

What do you think, moms? Please join in the discussion!

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