Opinion

The Texas abortion ban depends on menstruation ignorance

Defend reproductive rights by talking openly about periods

When the nation's strictest abortion law in nearly 50 years took effect in Texas on Wednesday, a common refrain among its opponents was that America was beginning to resemble a foreign country. Eric Garcia, a Democratic congressional candidate from California, tweeted, "GOP: Think of what the women in Afghanistan must endure under the Taliban. Also GOP: We will put $10,000 bounties on women seeking abortions and everyone helping them." Another viral tweet wondered, "When do we start airlifting the women and children out of Texas?" 

Taboos against periods are likewise considered to be the exclusive purview of supposedly unenlightened countries such as Ethiopia or rural India — places with menstruation huts and backward superstitions about women. But just because the U.S. has Tampax commercials and THINX ads in the subway doesn't mean we're unencumbered by our own menstruation taboos. In fact, despite liberals' outraged (and thinly racist) declarations that the Lone Star state now resembles an oppressive Islamic regime, it is a deeply American squeamishness about menstruation that is at least partially responsible for the yet-unchallenged Texas law.

Because let's face it: When it comes to talking openly about periods, the U.S. gets a failing grade. At many U.S. schools, boys and girls are separated during sex education, meaning girls are taught about menstruation and period hygiene while also implicitly being told such topics are not for discussion around boys. The stigma is cyclical and self-perpetuating: One British charity found that nearly half of girls between the ages of 14 and 21 are embarrassed by their periods. Meanwhile, "negative male attitudes towards periods … are largely down to information asymmetry or lack of male education on the topic," The Establishment points out. Though cis male naïveté about periods leads to plenty of funny articles debunking period myths, it also has serious consequences; it's only been six years, after all, since the future president of the United States dismissed a female debate moderator for having "blood coming out of her wherever." 

In fact, despite the visibility of women in public life these days, women are still accepted on the basis that they maintain the veneer of being "non-bleeders," as Sharra Vostral phrases it in Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. My own eyes were opened on the subject by a 2015 article in The Atlantic, "Don't Let Them See Your Tampons," which quotes Vostral and further interrogates the great lengths that American women go to in order to hide their hygiene products in public spaces. Though I consider myself a feminist, it'd never occurred to me that slipping a tampon up my sleeve so I could smuggle it unseen into the office bathroom was a shame-motivated discretion. And, unconsciously, it was also a protective one: A study cited in the Atlantic article found that people recoiled at the sight of feminine products, forming "worse impressions of a woman who dropped a tampon out of her bag than if she dropped something innocuous like a hair clip" to the point that they "even avoided sitting near her." 

But as we're seeing now in Texas, the consequences of Americans not talking openly about menstruation have bigger reverberations than office awkwardness. While a six-week abortion ban might sound at least plausible to a cis male — after all, that's nearly two whole months! — the restriction, as it is experienced by a menstruating person, is more like a two-week abortion ban, Salon's Amanda Marcotte has pointed out. And as many women know experientially, and some cis men might not know at all, two weeks without a period isn't necessarily long enough to alert women that they're pregnant.

But irregular periods, light periods, and cycle changes aren't exactly open topics of conversation due to the continued stigmatization of women's bodies. If they were, then Texas' new law might be called, discussed, and treated like what it actually is: A true and unconstitutional abortion ban.

Of course, this is the entire point for the Texas legislators, who want to ban abortions entirely and have been gunning for a showdown over women's reproductive rights. But the lawmakers are also taking advantage of the lack of open knowledge about how a menstruating person's body works by misleadingly suggesting she has time to make a decision about her pregnancy by the six-week mark. It is that falsely implied wiggle room, perhaps, that allowed for the Supreme Court's initial silence on the matter, a lack of urgent coverage by the media, and too many Americans shrugging off the law as being maybe a little severe, but just how things go down in Texas.

As we've seen throughout history, though, abortion bans don't actually stop abortions; they simply push people with lesser means to more desperate and sometimes more dangerous methods. Even as abortion-related deaths in the U.S. are lower than they used to be due to the spread of available information online, "research has shown that the more abortion restrictions a state has, the worse women and children's health outcomes in the state are," The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, reports. No matter the way you look at it, women in Texas are going to die specifically as a result of the new policy — a policy that exploits Americans' ignorance about female bodies.

A society that openly and unabashedly talks about, and accepts, menstrual periods wouldn't alone have prevented Texas' latest restriction on reproductive rights. But it's not so preposterous to wonder if it'd have gone a long way towards getting it the attention it deserves. Stigmatizing open discussion of female bodies — and making it shameful, or otherwise unwelcome around men — lets decisions like the six-week abortion ban go unchallenged. And it's a silence that's deafening.

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