Period poverty is a reproductive justice issue

Legislature needs to pass the I Am bill

IT ISN’T JUST abortion: period poverty is a reproductive justice issue.

In the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, people are looking to state legislatures to further protect (or restrict) abortion access. While protecting the right to health care, privacy, and individual liberty is essential, lawmakers have to do more than enshrine abortion rights into law to achieve reproductive justice.

The term “reproductive justice” was coined in 1994 by a collective, Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, in a statement in response to a feminist movement not fully responsive to the needs of women of color, low-income women, queer and trans women, immigrant women, and other oppressed groups. Instead of solely focusing on abortion, reproductive justice addresses issues like forced sterilization, maternal mortality, the astronomical cost of childcare and more. One of the least discussed aspects of reproductive justice is period poverty, or the lack of access to menstrual products.

In Massachusetts, 1 out of every 7 children lives in poverty, and for many of them, menstrual products are yet another thing their families struggle to afford. Over half of the school nurses in the Commonwealth reported seeing students miss class to get menstrual products from their offices. Having insufficient menstrual products doesn’t just cause people to miss school or work; it can also lead to stigmatization and shame as well as negative health consequences. Not changing products often enough can cause infections that leave menstruators susceptible to cervical cancer and infertility, thereby constraining the choices they have regarding pregnancy

On the flip side, many people rely on their menstrual cycle to assess their likelihood of becoming pregnant. In the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion rights advocates are urging people to delete these apps, citing privacy concerns about the data they collect. While these calls aren’t unreasonable—I certainly wouldn’t want anyone hostile to abortion knowing if I hadn’t gotten my period for an extended time—they put people with irregular menstrual cycles, particularly those who are low-income, between a rock and a hard place. People who are struggling to make ends meet can really benefit from knowing when they can expect their period, and consequently, when they need to buy period products, and they deserve to be able to do that without fear of their intimate data being used against them.

Many people with conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) use hormonal birth control to alleviate symptoms and/or add some consistency to their cycle. With some Republican lawmakers trying to classify hormonal contraceptive methods like the IUD as abortifacients and Justice Thomas’ concurrence questioning the validity of Griswold v. Connecticut, a Supreme Court case that used the same reasoning as Roe to establish the right to contraception, these options may soon be on the chopping block too, further limiting our rights to bodily autonomy, necessary healthcare, and reproductive justice.

Fortunately, we are not out of options. The Massachusetts Legislature has the opportunity to pass H.2354/S.2730, An Act to Increase Access to Menstrual Products in Prisons, Homeless Shelters and Public Schools (also known as the ‘I AM bill’), a comprehensive menstrual equity bill that would guarantee free and easily accessible disposable menstrual products in all schools, correctional facilities, and homeless shelters across the Commonwealth. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. have passed some form of legislation requiring period products in schools. We can do more than just join the ranks; we can enact the most comprehensive menstrual equity policy in the country and be a national leader in the fight for reproductive justice.

At a minimum, Massachusetts menstruators deserve to live in a Commonwealth that meets their most basic health and hygiene needs. Common sense solutions to period poverty have widespread bipartisan support, and with less than a month left in the legislative session, the time to act is now. Call your state representative and tell them to urge Speaker Ron Mariano to bring the I AM bill to a vote today. By passing reproductive justice policy we can ensure a Commonwealth where people have true body autonomy, decision around family planning and can support their families to succeed.

Hannah Wilcove is a summer fellow with Mass NOW and a Segal Fellow at the Brandeis Heller School of Social Policy & Management, master of public policy candidate, 2023.