Grassroots College Networks Distribute Emergency Contraceptives on Campus

Some policymakers worry that in states that ban or severely restrict abortion, access to emergency contraceptives may erode.

This is a photo of San Antonio college students at a table with free emergency contraceptives.
San Antonio college students Limya Harvey (left) and Cydney Mumford distribute free kits containing either emergency contraceptives, condoms, and lube, or menstrual products, at the University of Texas-San Antonio campus and at community events. (Kathleen Royster)

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Limya Harvey and Cydney Mumford set up a folding table a few times a month on the University of Texas-San Antonio campus to give away kits containing emergency contraceptives, condoms, and lube, or menstrual products like tampons and pads. They typically bring 50 of each type of kit, and after just an hour or two everything is gone.

The 19-year-old sophomores — Harvey is enrolled at UTSA and Mumford at Northeast Lakeview College — founded the organization Black Book Sex Ed last spring. Their mission is to educate students and others in need about sexual health and connect them with free services and products packaged into kits they distribute on campus, in the community, and through their website.

“Both of us grew up rather lower-income,” Mumford said, “so there’s a soft spot as it relates to people who say, ‘Oh, I just don’t have it right now.’ That’s part of the reason we started doing this.”

Harvey and Mumford aren’t alone. A growing number of students on college campuses nationwide are stepping in to provide other students with free or low-cost emergency contraceptives, birth control, and menstrual products.

They are also pushing back against threats to their reproductive freedom since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last year, which eliminated federal abortion protections.

Although emergency contraceptives are legal in every state, some policymakers worry that in states that ban or severely restrict abortion, access to emergency contraceptives and other types of birth control may erode because of people failing to distinguish between drugs that prevent pregnancy and medications used for abortions.

“Our requests for help have quadrupled since Dobbs,” said Kelly Cleland, the executive director of the American Society for Emergency Contraception, which provides toolkits and technical assistance to help students develop what are becoming known as peer-to-peer distribution networks. Those student networks provide emergency contraceptives and bring vending machines to their campuses that carry the medications and other personal health care products. The organization has worked with students at more than 200 campuses.

Many types of emergency contraceptive pills are available over the counter and without age restrictions. Students who distribute them are generally not putting themselves at legal risk, especially if they ensure the products are in their original packaging and haven’t expired and refrain from providing medical advice, Cleland said. It’s like giving a friend a Tylenol, one advocate explained.

“It’s really growing and a really interesting new route for people to get what they need in trusted ways, especially in Texas and other states where there are repercussions from the Dobbs decision,” said Mara Gandal-Powers, director of birth control access at the National Women’s Law Center.

Like those of many student groups, Harvey and Mumford’s kits contain products — emergency contraceptive pills, tampons, lube, etc. — donated by nonprofits and companies. Black Book Sex Ed accepts financial donations as well and uses the money to buy items at big-box stores.

The University of Texas-San Antonio didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Across the country, at Bowie State University in Maryland, a graduate student took a different approach to improving student access to contraceptives.

What started as a class project last year for Jakeya Johnson’s master’s degree program in public administration and policy, eventually became state law.

Starting next year, the measure will require many Maryland public colleges to provide round-the-clock access to emergency contraception and develop a comprehensive plan to ensure students have access to all FDA-approved forms of birth control, plus abortion services.

As part of her project, Johnson, 28, started researching the availability of reproductive health care at Bowie State, and she quickly learned that options were somewhat limited. When she called the health center, she was told that emergency contraception was available only to students who went through counseling first and that, while the college prescribed birth control, there was no pharmacy on campus where students could fill their prescriptions. She proposed that the school install a vending machine stocked with emergency contraceptives, condoms, pregnancy tests, and other sexual health products. But college officials told her they didn’t have money for the machines. Her research showed that students at other colleges in Maryland faced similar roadblocks.

So, Johnson approached then-Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery), now a state senator, about introducing a bill that would require schools to provide access to emergency contraceptives and other contraceptive services.

The bill, which was signed in May, requires the schools to provide the services by August 2024.

“There was definitely some pushback” from conservative legislators during the process, Johnson said. Although the final bill didn’t include requirements for transportation services or school reporting that Johnson wanted, she was heartened by the amount of support the bill received from parents and students.

In the spring, Johnson received a public service fellowship from the University System of Maryland that has enabled her to work with her student health center to develop a blueprint for Bowie State that other schools can follow, she said.

“It’s something that in 2023 we shouldn’t have to be fighting for,” she said.” We should already have it.”

“The legislation was confirmation and affirmation of the direction we were headed anyway,” said Michele Richardson, director of the Henry Wise Wellness Center at Bowie State. She noted that the school is in the process of bringing to campus wellness vending machines, which will be installed by August.

But increasing access is more challenging elsewhere.

At Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit college, members of the organization Students for Reproductive Justice aren’t permitted to host events on campus or reserve space in meeting rooms. The Loyola for Life group, which opposes abortion, faces no such restrictions.

While Loyola “welcomes an open exchange of ideas,” only registered student organizations that are “congruent with our values as a Jesuit, Catholic institution” can submit activity requests or reserve space on campus, said Matthew McDermott, a spokesperson for the university.

Oral contraceptives are provided only to students who need them for reasons unrelated to preventing pregnancy, and resident advisers are not permitted to distribute condoms or other forms of birth control.

“That’s where Students for Reproductive Justice comes in,” said Andi Beaudouin, 21, who for the past two years has overseen the group’s distribution of free emergency contraception. “We were like, ‘If the university isn’t going to do it then we will.’ Everyone deserves this and we don’t need to feel embarrassed or hesitant about getting the resources that we need.”

Beaudouin and other volunteers take orders for emergency contraception by email. They package pills with two pregnancy tests and some pads and liners in case of bleeding and hand off the kits to students either on campus or nearby. In the past two years, they’ve filled orders for more than 100 kits.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs, the number of requests skyrocketed, Beaudouin said. The group posted on Instagram pleading with students not to stockpile pills, because its supplies were very limited.

“People understood, but I felt really bad about it,” they said. (Beaudouin uses the pronoun they.)

Beaudouin doesn’t think university officials know that the reproductive health group distributes emergency contraceptives on campus. And Loyola for Life has picketed their off-campus condom distribution events, but it has gotten better since the reproductive health group asked them to stop, Beaudouin said.

Loyola for Life didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The national anti-abortion group Students for Life of America wouldn’t object to students distributing free pregnancy tests and menstrual products, said Kate Maloney, manager of the group’s Campaign for Abortion Free Cities. But they would object to distribution of emergency contraception, which they claim is an abortion-causing drug.

Still, the reproductive justice groups shouldn’t be prohibited from operating on campus, Maloney said. “We’re not going to say whether a group should be denied the right to exist,” she said, “because that has happened a lot to us.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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