CWRU needs to improve its women’s health services

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Writer

On June 28, 2022, Case Western Reserve University President Eric W. Kaler sent an email to the student body affirming the university’s commitment to “women’s rights to reproductive health.” In the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, CWRU made noticeable changes to campus health services to better meet the needs of students. While these recent developments are positive and valuable for meeting the health needs of female students, there are several ways in which CWRU’s health services are still lacking and are having a disproportionately negative effect on female students.

The most noticeable and perhaps significant change to CWRU’s health services after Dobbs is that the university reconfigured the vending machines once used solely for distributing COVID-19 tests into general “wellness vending machines.” Located in buildings across campus such as Wade Commons and Fribley Commons, the vending machines provide students with easy access to a variety of health products. Many of these are helpful for students capable of becoming pregnant, such as emergency contraceptive pills and pregnancy tests. The vending machines are also stocked with menstrual hygiene products—an important resource given that 21% of women find it financially difficult to access them.

While condoms could be picked up from certain campus offices prior to Dobbs and bathrooms often had free period products available, the shift towards the vending machine model provides several advantages—especially in regards to meeting reproductive health needs. As journalist Annalise Knudson describes, students may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed picking free condoms offered by their college or university. By placing them in vending machines, students can get condoms more discreetly than before, reducing the potential for embarrassment. Moreover, placing them in a vending machine that also includes medical supplies such as cough drops and ibuprofen makes getting condoms a normalized part of healthcare. Given that approximately a quarter of college students acquire an STD during their education, encouraging barrier use should be a priority.

Making emergency contraception accessible on campus is also important and valuable for students capable of becoming pregnant. While it can be acquired as an over-the-counter medication at stores such as CVS and Walgreens, placing it in vending machines across campus makes it more convenient for students. The proximity of emergency contraception to students encourages them to take it sooner during times when it is the most effective.

Despite the benefits gained by using the vending machine system, women’s health services at CWRU are still lacking in several ways. One noticeable limitation of the wellness vending machines is that they only include condoms. Dental dams, while available in offices such as the LGBT Center, are much harder to find in other places on campus. Prioritizing condom distribution over dental dams makes a heteronormative assumption about students’ protection needs. Furthermore, it fails to account for the fact that multiple types of barrier methods are needed. Given that the vast majority of college students do not consistently use protection for oral sex, providing easy access to protection for that scenario should be a priority. 

Having access to in-person appointments is also an important part of healthcare for students. This is severely lacking at the women’s health center at University Health and Counseling Services. When navigating the appointment menu on MyHealth to make a women’s health appointment, the only option offered is an online appointment. It is only after this appointment that the provider will determine if an in-person appointment is necessary. For certain services, this may be a reasonable option if there is no need to do an exam. However, there are certain situations, such as STD testing, where an initial in-person appointment is clearly necessary. 

What is perhaps most disconcerting is that the men’s health clinic has very different practices for students getting in-person appointments. When navigating through the appointment process for men’s health, students are given the option to have an online appointment, an in-person appointment or an urgent in-person appointment. There is no requirement for male students to meet with a provider online to have their need for an in-person appointment assessed; they can simply choose whichever option is best for their situation. This discrepancy raises an even greater concern about the university’s commitment to women’s health. 

CWRU claims to be committed to women’s health and has taken certain steps in the past academic year to improve the resources available on campus. However, there is still a need for significant improvement. Addressing the gaps in female health at CWRU is vital to improving equity for health on campus.