Background & Program Launch
When I first arrived at Georgetown University as a freshman three years ago, I quickly realized how many barriers existed on our campus for students trying to access sexual and reproductive healthcare. Georgetown is the country’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit school, and the University has banned the distribution and sale of all contraception, including condoms, on campus. Our Student Health Center will only prescribe contraceptives like birth control for “non-contraceptive medical purposes” like acne or cramps, and the pharmacy at the on-campus hospital does not fill any prescriptions for contraception, regardless of the reason. There was no free STI testing available on campus, and practically no information about how to access it elsewhere. As a young queer person just starting college, I was terrified. But I was also eager to make change, so I joined H*yas for Choice, the reproductive justice student group on campus, and plugged into the group’s advocacy efforts for expanded access to and increased quality of care available on campus.
In the last three years, we’ve made a lot of progress. Our efforts ensured that free STI testing is now available at least once a semester, and we’re pushing to make it more often. The Student Health Center for the first time publicly clarified its policy on contraception and other sexual and reproductive health services, meaning that students can go to their website instead of relying on word of mouth. They also began prescribing the hormonal IUD Mirena, although under limited purposes. We also ran a successful campaign to prevent Georgetown from removing access to contraception on its health insurance plans after the Trump administration rolled back the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
Even as we made this progress on our campus in the last three years, we began the year recognizing that a huge gap still exists between the sexual and reproductive health needs of our community and the services Georgetown actually provided. One of the biggest needs we heard our community articulating was for emergency contraception. Not only was it not available on campus, but the closest location was also nearly a mile away and cost between $30-$60. For our community, it felt inaccessible. For decades, we’ve distributed condoms, personal lubricant, and other sexual health supplies for free, and decided to see if we could meet the community’s need ourselves. As we saw it, if they wouldn’t provide us with what we needed, we’d build our own systems and do it ourselves.
That’s why on September 17 of this year, H*yas for Choice announced the launch of an emergency contraception distribution service. Though we suggest a donation of ten dollars to support the organization, we distribute the emergency contraception free of charge. In the short time since then, we’ve averaged more than one emergency contraception delivery a day, and the number of requests continues to increase. I personally have been told by people I have delivered to that they wouldn’t have been able to afford purchasing emergency contraception for full price and that they don’t know what they would have done without us. Almost every person has told me that even though they were grateful for what we students were doing to increase access, the university should have been caring for our community’s health needs instead of leaving it to students.
Why Does Emergency Contraception on Campus matter?
Why does it matter so much that we expand access to emergency contraception and other reproductive and sexual healthcare for college students? Many students start having sex for the first time in college, and have to learn to navigate obtaining care without the support of family. A 2015 survey also found 7 in 10 college students were stressed about their finances, and having to spend money on expensive medications or doctors visits only makes that stress worse. The phenomena of “the bubble” also exists on nearly every campus, where students feel isolated on campus and like they do not or cannot leave campus regularly. The bubble only compounds the geographic isolation of some schools. If at Georgetown, even though we’re in the major metropolitan area of Washington, DC, we have trouble finding emergency contraception nearby, where does that leave students attending more rural schools?
Emergency contraception also matters deeply for survivors of sexual assault, and as we face an epidemic of sexual violence on campus and in our society more broadly, expanding access to emergency contraception is an important part of supporting survivors.
It’s also important to recognize that emergency contraception is generally effective up to five days after unprotected sex, and is less effective the longer you wait. So especially for something so time sensitive, barriers that cause even short delays in access can make a monumental difference.
As excited as we are about the change we’re making on our campus, we’re even more excited that we’re just the latest in a trend of universities creating access to this kind of care on campus. Recognizing that a campus health center that might prescribe or refer to emergency contraception is nowhere near enough, students have pushed colleges across the country to install Plan-B vending machines.
Although students have been central to all of these efforts, to our knowledge at H*yas for Choice, we are the first instance of students themselves are distributing the emergency contraception and the first college where it is now available for free to everyone.
We also know that what we’re doing connects to the larger movement to expand access to reproductive care on college campuses.
Moving forward at Georgetown & beyond
Despite some backlash from conservative news outlets and student groups on campus, the positive has far outweighed this negative. On campus, we’ve received an overwhelming amount of support, with many students, parents, and alumni donating to support us in providing this service and even more voicing their support on social media and in person. Georgetown’s administration, for its part, has largely taken a hands-off approach because of our unrecognized status.
Starting this service has reinvigorated many of our group’s members and made us realize that we really can accomplish big things, as long as we think big enough. Most important for me, though, has been the steadfast, simple gratitude I’ve heard from each person I’ve delivered emergency contraception to since we launched. A thousand condemnations from conservative media doesn’t mean as much as just one “thank you” from a student we’ve helped.
Everyone deserves the ability to access the sexual and reproductive healthcare they need.