Where the Health Center Fails, The Repro Hotline Steps In
By Edith Hollander
Note: This story was originally written as a literary journalism (creative nonfiction) assignment. Edith gave us permission to share the piece because it highlights the work of a fellow intern. If you’re interested in learning more about the work mentioned in this piece, please contact NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland at email@example.com.
When most of us finally arrive home in the evening and shrug off our coats, only to be interrupted by the ding! of a cell phone, we don’t respond by jumping immediately into action. We can boil the pasta water and silence the insidious siren-call of work and favors. But Jo Morganelli, whose iPhone is the nucleus of a volunteer-run delivery service, does not share that luxury.
On the first Wednesday of this December, Jo was indeed lounging in the basement bedroom of the Belvedere house that she shares with four “messy-as-hell” roommates. The basement isn’t insulated, but it is two-hundred fewer dollars of rent than the ground floor. She sits on her bed in a puffy, neon-pink winter jacket, tapping away on a poly-sci paper — one of the last papers she’ll write as an undergrad, given that she expects to graduate this month. A text message slides onto her computer’s display.
“Hi — a friend told me I could get a pregnancy test from you?” The anonymous voice reaches Jo through the screen.
Within minutes, Jo is already back in her white van, which only has a couple thousands miles of life left — she recently discovered its market worth to be a mere two-hundred and fifty dollars — making her way back to Towson University’s campus.
Jo and I are both interns at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. In addition to being a full-time student, Jo works four days a week at the Hampden Wine Source. She wasn’t expecting to continue her summer internship into the Fall. But Diana Philip, the organization’s director, pitched a project that was perfect for her: a “repro-hotline” based at Towson University. The hotline would connect students with volunteers who could deliver emergency contraception (also known as EC), condoms, and pregnancy tests on campus at no cost. The concept was not original; a young woman named Misycha Thomas pioneered a repro-hotline as a student at Hampton University and was even a panelist at the 2019 “EC Jamboree.” By late October, Jo and a handful of volunteers she had connected with through her social media set up an Instagram account entitled @Reprohotlineoftowson. The hotline takes delivery requests through Instagram direct messages, as well as through Jo’s cell which is listed in the account’s bio. Jo forwards delivery requests to the volunteer group chat and has a coordinating position.
The need for better reproductive healthcare on college campuses has been long neglected by school administrations and slowed by enduring conservative views on contraception. While many schools offer EC in the health center, there are still barriers to access. It’s expensive: the cost of the medication ranges from twenty-five to sixty dollars, depending on how a specific school’s insurance works. Most university health centers are open only on weekdays during business hours and often require an appointment just to purchase the pill — even though it is considered an over-the-counter drug and is sold at pharmacies. Such is the situation at Towson University. The appointment requirement is particularly inane, considering that emergency contraception is most effective when taken immediately after unprotected sex and must be taken within seventy-two hours. In addition, students who lack transportation may not be able to get to a pharmacy that sells EC, and if they do, they risk harassment by sales clerks and the general stigma around the experience.
After a short ten-minute drive up York Road, Jo pulls over outside the campus’s largest residential units, nicknamed “the Towers.” Architecturally, they are best described as two concrete rectangles with windows. She turns off the ignition and waits for the texter to come downstairs, emphatically noting how “crusty and ugly” the buildings are as she kills time.
Eventually, out of the dark winter evening, she makes out three figures making their way towards her. The parking lot is not well lit, and Jo struggles to make out the details of their forms. She probably couldn’t pick them out of a crowd tomorrow. As they get closer, she can see that there are two girls, both wearing winter coats over patterned pajama pants. They have a short boy with a timid stance with them as well. It makes sense to Jo that the girl who contacted her would bring friends — after all, picking up a pill from a stranger in a vehicle isn’t the conventional method of acquiring healthcare. But students wouldn’t have to make peer hotlines if the traditional methods were designed in their interest, would they?
“Hi!” Jo waves and smiles from her car. “I’m from the hotline!” She likes to bring a positive and friendly demeanor to these deliveries.
One of the pajama-wearing girls approaches Jo. Her friends hang back a little. She is white, with light brown hair and rather nondescript facial features. “Thank you so much,” she says. Jo grabs the white pregnancy test box from the passenger seat where she had it waiting to go and hands it to the girl through the window.
“Not a problem. Do you want emergency contraception too?” Jo and the other volunteers on the hotline have a rule: have five boxes on you at all times.
“No,” she responds. “It’s honestly too late now.” After a pause, she wonders aloud, “How are you… like, doing this? Are you just buying all this stuff?”
Jo laughs. “No, because I’m not a millionaire. I work for this nonprofit, and we got a buttload of EC donated. It’s all from Vagasil so far. They made this new competitor pill to Plan B, which is actually a brand name, by the way, not the generic name for the medication. Vagasil’s pill is called Preventeza. Anyway, they fucked up something on the packaging, so they couldn’t sell it in CVS. But there’s nothing wrong with the pill,” Jo explains.
It’s true — deliveries of Preventeza had started rolling in over September, accumulating like cardboard-box wallpaper in NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland’s small office. “Do you have any other questions?” Jo asks. Part of the hotline’s mission is to provide accurate and compassionate information about EC and reproductive health in general. Jo has collected a wealth of factual knowledge during her intern position and spends time educating her fleet of volunteers.
“No,” the girl replies. “Thanks, though.”
“Okay! Just know that whatever you decide, we are here to help.”
They haven’t had any such requests in their month of operation. Still the hotline also offers information on reproductive health clinics in the area, which includes abortion clinics, and rides to appointments. Jo turns her ignition back on and heads south on York.
There have been two cases in which the hotline received four to five requests for EC from the same people. “We always give it to them, but after the second time, I asked if they needed help finding another form of birth control,” Jo told me in the Pro-Choice meeting room last Thursday. “One of them I think was getting it for friends, which we are totally okay with. But the other eventually responded that she’s bipolar and can’t take the pill. She’s waiting until she goes home for break so she can get an IUD. And I was all asking her if she needed other birth control!” Jo points to herself with a kind of self-effacing laugh and says “asshole.”
The hotline officially started the first week of November and has made over sixty deliveries so far. They are thirty-seven volunteers strong and are even organized into three department-like groups: social media, administration and deliveries. Since the hotline’s inception, Jo can be found most often parked in front of the office’s paper-cutter, churning out EC information booklets with a factory-like efficiency.
“Healthcare doesn’t stop being necessary just because the health center is closed,” she quipped to me on one such instance, rolling her eyes with both sarcasm and sincerity. “It’s going so great, we’ve talked about expanding it to other universities around the state.” She turned her attention to stacking cut-out papers. “People really need this. This could be huge.”