An unplanned fling. A condom the wrong size. A daily birth control pill missed for several days. Intoxication and the heat of a moment. The “pull-out” method.

The wellness machines are mandated to include contraceptive products at a discounted price. Hanz Herman / Daily Nexus

Any combination of such elements can be a recipe for unwanted pregnancy. Emergency contraceptive pills are usually the answer for preventing pregnancy after the fact. But the problem, for some college students, is getting emergency contraceptives in time and at an affordable cost, per workers at college health centers. 

When Eyra Dordi was working at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Women’s Health Center in 2016, she noticed many students needed emergency contraceptives outside of the business hours of local pharmacies and the campus student health center. Citing the student need, she proposed the framework for a 24/7 emergency contraceptive machine. Since its establishment in 2017, the machine remains on campus today—and is one cog in a larger effort to increase contraceptive access. 

Recent California legislation now requires each University of California campus to have at least one Wellness Vending Machine with discounted emergency contraceptive access. Assembly Bill 2482, passed in 2022, will hold the campuses accountable through a pilot program until 2029, with required reports of the program’s progress in 2025. Additionally, Cal State and California community college must establish at least one machine at five of their campuses.

The wellness machines must include condoms, dental dams, menstrual products, lubrication, and pregnancy tests.

Sitting on the second floor of the UCSB library by the Ocean Floor elevators, UCSB’s Wellness Vending Machine sells emergency contraception, pregnancy tests, condoms and lubricant, along with allergy and pain-relief medication, sanitizer and digital thermometers. 

Without insurance, Plan B and other generic emergency contraceptives typically cost $40-50, according to Planned Parenthood. Because of efforts by the Student Health Center and Women’s Center, the cost is $15, which was previously $10 since 2017.  

Betsy Kaminiski, the Director of Women, Gender, and Sexual Equity at the UCSB Women’s Center and the Non-Traditional Student Resource Center, said the reason behind the increase is due to the funds from Plan B not covering the costs of stocking. Thus, all the machine’s revenue goes back into funding its stock.

“It’s really hard to kind of get any finances for it because it’s just its own thing. We’re not getting any money from it. It’s a cycle,” Women’s Center Administrative Coordinator Jessica Evers, who restocks the machine, said.

Kaminski reported that 1,050 units of emergency contraception have been sold via the Wellness Vending Machine from May 2022-23. She anticipates that 350-400 units of Plan B will be sold by the end of this quarter. 

“It removes stigma”

Plan B Step-One is a morning-after emergency contraception pill, taken the day after unprotected sexual intercourse, according to Mayo Clinic. The sooner the pill is taken, which should be under 72 hours after, the more effective it is.

The advantage of the Wellness Vending Machine is its 24-hour availability and discounted prices, Kaminiski said. The vending machine is the only place in UCSB and adjacent I.V. to get birth control and other wellness products at anytime. 

Kaminiski spoke to the anonymity of the transactions, removing the stigma for students who might be scared or embarrassed to purchase Plan B or other wellness products in stores. 

“[Students] don’t have to talk to anybody. They don’t have to answer any questions. They can just go there and get what they need from the machine. It’s meant to address any possible stigma or embarrassment that might prevent somebody from being able to ask for the medical supplies that they need,” Kaminski said.

Though Plan B is the most popular product sold at the machine, its other products get fair use. From May 2022-23, 146 pregnancy tests, 60 bottles of ibuprofen and 113 single-use condoms have been sold. Last summer, 180 units of Plan B, 10 pregnancy tests and 15 single-use condoms were sold, according to Kaminiski.

Evers emphasized holidays and specific events, like Deltopia, as the most popular times the machine is used. Two weeks before Halloween weekend, Evers checked the machine three times a week and took extra steps in directing students to it.  

“[It’s] not Friday. It’s always [on] Monday, because like five people an hour come in here. And they’re asking, ‘do you have a pregnany test? ‘Plan B?’ And immediately, I say, ‘second-floor library,’” Evers said.

History of university contraceptive machines 

The first-known university contraceptive machine was implemented at Shippensburg Unviersity in 2012, which was a response to the isolated position of the campus—130 miles away from major cities. The decision, supported largely by the university student population at the time, sparked questions across the nation about easily available contraceptives at higher education institutions. 

As more campuses followed suit religious and pro-life groups have largely condemned the effort while pharmaceutical industry professionals were divided. 

“Perhaps it is personalized medicine taken too far,” Alexandra Stern, professor of the history of medicine at the Unviersity of Michigan, said in a 2012 Politico article. “It’s part of the general trend that drugs are available for consumers without interface with a pharmacist or doctors. This trend has serious pitfalls.”

Many campuses have accepted the machines as a necessary function for student health. At least 39 campuses across 17 states have implemented a machine in 2023, in some places that have banned or restricted abortion access. At UCSB, Dordi said getting emergency contraceptives before the machine was “quite difficult.”

“You would have to go off campus, and those pharmacies, back then it would cost somewhere between $55 and $65. Those pharmacies could be difficult to access depending on where you were. If you were biking or taking the bus, if you didn’t have a car, it could also be difficult to get to them,” Dordi said.

Inspired by Shippensburg’s efforts, Dordi proposed the idea of a UCSB machine in 2016. The project then became a collaboration with Student Health, who helped provide the supplies for the machine, including Plan B at nearly the supply cost—$10. 

UCSB pharmacy director Randy Lina said this funding comes from the Student Health budget and reflects their “commitment to provide accessible and affordable health resources to students.” 

In the project’s early stages, universities like Stanford and UC Davis reached out to Dordi’s project team for advice. Though UC Davis was the first UC to establish its machine in 2016, since UCSB took longer to get approval and funding. Efforts, Dordi said, that made the project worth the time commitment.

“I think it has staying power, because of all the different people that touched it. Do I wish it maybe it would have been great if it happened faster yes, but I’m really proud of what it was,” Dordi said. “I’m glad that students now have that access that that we didn’t have when I was there.”

Campus discourse

In a survey of 84 random students at the Arbor and University Center, 45% of respondents knew about the wellness vending machine. Of those who knew of the machine, 36% did not know it sold Plan B, and 22% knew it sold Plan B but did not know the price.

In a Nexus survey of 84 random students at the Arbor and University Center, 45% of respondents knew about the wellness vending machine. Siddharth Chattoraj / Daily Nexus

There was some opposition from the campus when the vending machine project was in its development phase in 2016-17. To fund the purchase of the machine, 50 cents were allocated from the student fee budget for $11,500. One Bottom Line article, defending a pro-life position toward emergency contraceptives, criticized the use of student fees for funding the machine. 

Additionally, the Anscombe Society at UCSB, a now currently inactive organization that aims to promote traditional marriage, was in opposition to the decision, according to Intelligent Dispensing Solutions. 

Current UCSB Republicans President and fourth-year economics major Alex Patton said he believes it is more convenient to have these machines on campus rather than students having to drive to pharmacies. But from the perspective of his organization, he wants to reduce spendings by the school “any way that we can” per high tuition costs.

“[Students] can buy it on their own without being subsidized by other students,” Patton said. “But our general position is that we want the student expenditure to go down.”

Student service fees have not been directly used for the machine since the year it was established, Kaminiski said. The amount of tuition that goes toward the Women’s Center budget pays the workers who upkeep the machine. 

Particularly, student Equity in Mental Health funding was used to replace inoperable parts of the machine and pay for a new machine wrap last year, according to Kaminski.

Evers said a continuous issue for the machine is getting the correct supplies and funding to restock its most popular items.

“It’s kind of sad because Plan B and pregnancy tests are always empty, but the condoms are always full. Like I have maybe restocked condoms once and Plan B [I’m] constantly restocking,” Evers said. 

One anonymous student from the Nexus survey said when he tried to get Plan B from the machine, there were no supplies left. 

However, some students appreciate the option of obtaining birth control methods and contraceptives with little barriers. In the Nexus survey, 24% of those who had knowledge of the machine referred someone else to it.

“My friend was kind of in a situation so she was talking about potentially using the Plan B contraceptive vending machine in the library, and that’s how I found out about it,” undeclared second-year student Dayita Ray said.

Kaminiski hopes the machine will continue to support students for years to come.

“Everybody that I’ve encountered has been very supportive. I think people understand the need for trying to make wellness and health care products accessible to students,” Kaminiski said.

A version of this article appeared on p. 3 of the Nov 9, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Print

Lizzy Rager
Lizzy Rager (she/her) is the Assistant News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. She can be reached at lizzyrager@dailynexus.com