At my first Princeton Students for Reproductive Justice (PSRJ) meeting, Mary, one of the club’s charismatic leaders, announced that they were forming a committee with the goal of getting a vending machine that would provide Princeton students with emergency contraception and other sexual health products. UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia and a number of other universities had this resource installed on their campuses, so why didn’t we?
We launched into this project incredibly quickly. After the first meeting, Mary had tasked me and two other first years with creating a six-question survey to garner student support for our emergency contraception vending machine. You can only imagine the blood, sweat, and tears that went into those six questions; we were very worried that our half-formed freshmen brains would somehow mess up the questions asking for gender and class year.
While we were working on sending out the survey to as many people as possible, other PSRJ members were in contact with the vending machine installation company Vengo Labs. We chose Vengo for this project because they install and refill the vending machines for free. All we have to do is suggest some discreet and private locations that have access to ethernet, and Vengo will do the rest.
In what felt like no time, we were writing a proposal to present this project to Vice President Calhoun, who gave us the go ahead. Initially, I had no motivation for joining this committee outside of believing that sexual health products should be easily accessible to all members of our community. The price of Plan-B at CVS is 50 dollars, and 57.5 percent of respondents to PSRJ’s survey marked that this price would be an obstacle to their purchasing of Plan-B. On top of the economic burden, for many womxn the act of obtaining Plan-B can be intimidating and embarrassing. Obviously, this is unacceptable.
In one of our initial meetings, someone asked why we were attempting to install a vending machine with Plan-B when McCosh provided free emergency contraception. I had had no idea that McCosh provided free emergency contraception, so after hearing that question, I also wondered why.
After reading survey responses and listening to stories describing people’s experiences getting Plan-B, the answer to this question became glaringly clear: getting Plan-B in public, with other people present, whether a nurse or cashier, is incredibly uncomfortable. As one of our survey respondents said, “There is no way to kill the awkward.”
Often, third-party intermediaries don’t even try to make the situation more comfortable. I’ve heard horror stories about vulnerable, anxious, young womxn going to purchase Plan-B from their local pharmacy only to be questioned by the pharmacist as to why they were having unprotected sex. Womxn seek Plan-B for reasons ranging from sexual assault to broken condoms; no matter the reason why they are seeking Plan-B, they should be treated with a respect for their privacy in mind. McCosh is an amazing sexual health resource for people who are willing to interact with a third-party adult; however, some womxn prefer that there be no human contact while purchasing this product, which is completely understandable.
I was surprised by some of the student responses that were frankly unempathetic. I feel like this lack of empathy speaks to the polarization of opinions regarding womxn’s sexual health and reproductive rights. The polarization was evident in Princeton Pro-Life’s (PPL) response to PSRJ’s survey on the Wilson Wire. PPL claimed that because Plan-B can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, it is an abortifacient. They wrote, “By artificially preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb, Plan-B destroys a genetically unique zygote. Likewise, an abortion pill also causes the destruction of a fertilized egg that would, under proper conditions develop into an infant. If you hold that life begins at conception, that is, at fertilization, know that Plan-B has the potential, even if unlikely, to destroy a person, and no risk is worth taking if it endangers human life. ”
There are numerous issues with this manipulative response. First, I should make it clear that according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an abortion is specifically the termination of an existing pregnancy. They define an existing pregnancy as a fertilized egg that has already been implanted in the uterus lining. Therefore, the prevention of implantation is not an abortion. Secondly, Princeton Pro-Life’s (PPL) placement of “likewise” instructs the reader to draw a completely false conclusion. They suggest that Plan-B causes the “destruction of a fertilized egg,” which it does not; Plan-B prevents implantation. We could go down the rabbit hole of questioning whether defining an abortion as “the destruction of a fertilized egg” is even remotely meant to be a definition (to me, it seems like a highly inflammatory statement meant to put the fear of God into the reader), but honestly there’s no point.
And there really is no point because we have no shared vocabulary. In most other dialogues, there are some common starting points or foundational principles that both sides can refer to. For example, when discussing guns, whether you are for or against guns, you can ground your opinion in some constitutional stipulation. In discussions about birth control, people approach the topic from two disparate standpoints: one secular and the other religious. This makes dialogues about womxn’s sexual health and reproductive rights incredibly frustrating because we are stuck.
Compromise seems out of reach, but groups like PSRJ will never stop trying to provide womxn who seek sexual health products with access to these products. These vending machines will provide womxn who want personal lubricant, a UTI detection kit, condoms, and or Plan-B with these products. Obviously, no one who does not need or desire these products will have to buy or see them because the vending machines will be placed in discreet locations in an effort to maintain the privacy of the purchasing party.
Right now, PSRJ is setting up a time for Vengo Labs to come to Princeton and determine whether the locations we have selected for the vending machines are feasible. We are also reaching out to various funding groups to see if the items in the vending machine can be partially subsidized if not completely free. I hope that, by the end of the year if not sooner, Princeton students will have stress-free access to Plan-B and these other sexual health products.