Periods are having a moment, and the wave of conversations and advocacy around menstruation has leaked into the political realm. Across the country, politicians have introduced legislative measures to increase access to feminine hygiene products and reproductive health care. Here is a look at five fearless women, all fighting for women’s health at the federal, state, and local levels.
U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng, a representative from New York, is a fierce advocate for making menstrual products more affordable and accessible for women in all 50 states. One piece of federal legislation she proposed, the “Fund Essential Menstrual Products (FEM) Act,” would include pads, tampons, liners, and other feminine hygiene products on the list of items eligible to be purchased with flexible spending accounts. FSA’s allow individuals to use tax-free income for medical expenses, including product purchases like prescription medications and bandages. Bandages are a pretty important thing to have when you’re bleeding – kind of like tampons.
Fellow U.S. Congresswoman from New York, Carolyn B. Maloney, has been introducing and re-introducing legislation to increase research and transparency around ingredients in menstrual products for two decades. In 1997, she introduced the first version of the Tampon Safety and Research Act, to urge the FDA to require companies to disclose the ingredients in their menstrual products on product packaging, and to require the National Institutes of Health to research the potential health risks associated with use of feminine hygiene products.
Some experts suggest that chemicals commonly found in menstrual products can be toxic with long-term exposure. For example, phthalates, a class of industrial chemicals found in fragranced products like pads and tampons, have been linked to asthma, eczema, and hormonal imbalances. A 2015 study by Ami Zota, Assistant Professor of environmental health at George Washington University, linked use of feminine hygiene products to increased phthalate levels. Another category of harmful chemicals called dioxins are found in many pads, liners, and tampons as a byproduct of the bleaching process. The World Health Organization has deemed dioxins “highly toxic,” as they can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, immune system damage, and hormonal imbalances.
Given that the average woman uses 10,000 menstrual products over 30 years of menstruation, having comprehensive research on the health effects of these products, and transparency about the chemicals contained in them, really seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Rep. Maloney has reintroduced the bill over a dozen times since the first attempt in 1997, with the latest attempt currently stuck in committee. Hopefully it won’t take another dozen versions of this bill to finally see meaningful progress in this area.
At the State level, female legislators in Illinois have been busy working to expand access to reproductive health care for women. Illinois State Senator Melinda Bush sponsored a bill to remove the 6.25% tax on feminine hygiene products, including tampons, pads, and incontinence products – because, as most women can attest, pads are really anything but luxurious. The bill is now headed to the House for consideration, where lawmakers have been busy on their own health access measures. Illinois State Representative Elaine Nekritz proposed a bill to increase women’s access to a wider range contraceptive options. Currently, in order to get access to birth control not covered by their insurance, women have to go through a complex waiver process. In support of the bill, however, Rep. Nekritz made a novel assertion – that women should be able to choose birth control that’s best for their bodies, without having to pay more. Despite the basic common sense underlying the bill, it was narrowly approved with a 61-52 vote, with critics questioning whether insurance providers should have to pay for “promiscuity.” Notably, of course, none of these primarily male dissenters have ever experienced the debilitating cramps, menstrual migraines, or monthly breakouts that birth control pills help reduce.
At the city level, local politicians have also taken up the menstrual equity charge. New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland spearheaded ground-breaking measures to increase access to menstrual products for women and girls in the city. The council unanimously approved Ferreras-Copeland’s bill package, which mandates that women must be provided with free feminine hygiene products in all public schools, homeless shelters, and prisons. With Mayor de Blasio’s signature, New York City became the first city to legislate such comprehensive availability of menstrual products for women and girls. For the 6th grader who can grab a free pad in the bathroom, instead of missing class to wait in line for one from the nurse, to the woman who won’t be denied a tampon because the shelter didn’t have the budget, this legislation is going to have a profound effect on the lives of women all over the city.
Access to safe, affordable feminine care is a basic necessity for women and girls to be able to contribute productively in society – at school, at work, or at home. Politicians advocating for legislation to provide a basic standard of health care and access should be commended for their efforts, but they cannot be expected to do this work alone. Contact your federal, state and local representatives to encourage them to support the menstrual health equity legislation currently under consideration. This November, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and 34 in the Senate, are up for election – learn about where candidates stand on women’s health issues before you cast your vote. You don’t have to be a politician to help make basic access to sexual and reproductive health care a reality for all women, all across the US.