Since 2013, emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs), more commonly known as “Plan B,” have been legally available to people of all ages over the counter. Half a decade later, one might assume that they would be easily accessible to those who need them, especially on college campuses. And yet, legal loopholes, transportation and ability issues, and a societal discomfort with female sexuality continue to serve as obstacles obscuring the time-sensitive path to emergency contraception.
Recently, this trend has reared its ugly head at UCSD.
Last week, Associate University Librarian of Academic Services Catherine Friedman denied an Associated Students (ASUCSD) proposal to join countless universities across America in providing Plan B pills vending machines.
The proposed addition of Plan B pills in the AS Essentials vending machine was rejected on the grounds that it fails to “adhere to the original intent” of the machine, which currently provides school supplies (notebooks, pens, blue books, etc.) to students in Geisel Library.
This response begs the question: What defines an academic “essential”? In the era of technology and Turnitin, a student could feasibly have a very successful academic career without ever touching a pen to paper. The bookstore, just a few hundred yards away from Geisel, and every campus market carries the exact same supplies offered in the AS Essentials vending machine.
A Memorandum of Understanding between ASUCSD and Geisel Library, signed by Friedman, authorizes the sale of essential supplies, including “limited health-related items approved by the Library’s Director of Learning Spaces in Advance” in the vending machine. Not only does this mean that rejecting Plan B from the vending machine is a choice, it means that there was an expectation that health-related items could be and would likely be placed in the machine.
Advil and DayQuil fit the mold for a vending machine full of student essentials. But the Library seems to believe that ECPs are not considered an essential for academic success.
ECPs are most effective in the first 12 hours after intercourse. Within the first 24 hours, they remain 95% effective at preventing pregnancy. That statistic falls to 89% after the first 72 hours. Time is everything with ECPs, and campus life is not suited for easy and quick access.
Student Health Services (SHS) offers ECPs, but their hours are extremely limited and they are closed on the weekends. Meaning that if someone needs an ECP Friday night, by the time they could get into SHS Monday morning (assuming they don’t have any classes or work which would stop them from getting to SHS promptly at 8am), there is only an 89% chance that it would prevent a pregnancy. Geisel Library is open most days and nights, providing convenient access in a spot where most students spend their hours studying and working.
Even if students have the means to get to a local pharmacy, there is no guarantee that the pharmacist on call will sell them an ECP. According to the ACLU, pharmacists have the right to a “conscience clause,” meaning that they can refuse to sell something that violates their personal beliefs, regardless of whether the pharmacy is privately or state owned.
And even if a student has the time or ability to get to SHS or an off-campus pharmacy, there is the added element of anonymity that is lost in both of those cases. Like any other person seeking healthcare, people wishing to purchase ECPs deserve the right to privacy. The prospect of having to ask a stranger for ECPs can be deeply uncomfortable, considering that women’s health issues have transcended the realm of policymaking into the realm of morality.
With a vending machine, there is absolutely no chance that the clerk will refuse to sell ECPs or that the process of requesting them will be unpleasant. Plus, if someone you know notices you purchasing something in a vending machine, there is no way they could know if you’re buying a blue book, a pencil, or an ECP.
Every RA’s door, every campus market, every resource center, and many other locations all over campus offer condoms for sale or for free as part of UCSD’s initiatives to encourage safe sex. However, as soon as ECPs are introduced, there is a troubling hesitance. Whether the root of this hesitance is the misrepresentation of Plan B as an abortion pill or something else, the disparity between access to men’s sexual health resources compared to women’s sexual health resources is alarming. This pattern is especially illogical because of women’s increased stakes in sexual health resources due to the risk of pregnancy.
Regardless of whether this is the Geisel Library librarians’ intention, the refusal to allow ECPs to be sold there is part of a larger societal anxiety about women’s health and sexuality. Seeing condoms for sale alongside notebooks and pens in the markets is apparently fine, but putting Plan B alongside school supplies in Geisel is just asking too much for some.
ASUCSD is currently working with Price Center administrators and the University Centers Advisory Board to install a new Wellness Vending Machine in Price Center, but this will require more time and funding than the original proposal. ASUCSD will have to purchase a new machine and a new card reader that recognizes Triton Cash, and will have to receive approval from Price Center.
The question of what is and is not essential to a UCSD student, in a facility that serves students, should be determined by the students. Even if a Wellness Vending Machine is placed in Price Center, that does not mean Plan B should not also be placed in Geisel vending machines. The mission of Geisel Library is to provide “information resources, services, and spaces that support the diverse teaching, research, creative endeavors, and public service programs of the UCSD community.” In denying this proposal, Geisel is not only failing to meet its mission–it’s failing students.
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