Why Menstrual Literacy Is Needed for a Working Democracy

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“Know what I like about 16? It’s even. It’s four months,” said former president Donald J. Trump to an anonymous source recently. 

Trump made his ignorance about basic biology headline news once again after explaining his reasoning for supporting a 16-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. With abortion currently heavily restricted in 21 states, menstrual literacy is a necessity.

According to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, author and a leading advocate for menstrual equity in the U.S. (and executive director of partnerships and strategy for Ms.), the issue is inextricably tied to clashes over abortion and education. Trump’s statement makes the all too common assumption that weeks of pregnancy equates to time available to obtain an abortion. However, a 16-week pregnancy does not mean a person has been allowed four months to obtain an abortion. 

This ignorance is nothing new, for Trump. In 2015, he became the first presidential candidate to use menstruation as a form of mockery when he said the former Fox News host, Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” when he did not like the questions she posed to him at a Republican debate.  

“He’s now in the camp of politicians who have gone public showing they don’t know anything about how weeks of pregnancy are calculated,” said Weiss-Wolf. 

How We Measure Pregnancy

Pregnancy is counted from the day of the last menstrual period, not the missed menstrual period. Measuring pregnancy by weeks leaves room for a liminal four week window where a person might not be pregnant yet—but according to how we measure weeks of pregnancy they already are. 

“From your period through ovulation you are walking around potentially pregnant every single time. And can potentially be held liable for something you did during that time before you even conceived. Whether it was because you had too much wine, or you smoked a cigarette or you rode a rollercoaster,” said Weiss-Wolf.  

People can now be held accountable for actions they take when they don’t know they’re pregnant, and that’s super dystopian.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf

Weiss-Wolf noted that this aspect of criminalization is particularly terrifying. “There’s more danger for people in terms of both abortion bans and criminalization. And I think the criminalization piece is really important here again… If people can be held accountable for actions they take when they’re not yet or don’t yet know they’re pregnant, and that’s super dystopian,” said Weiss-Wolf. 

“There’s just more danger for people in terms of both abortion bans and criminalization. And I think the criminalization piece is really important here again… People can now be held accountable for actions they take when they don’t know they’re pregnant, and that’s super dystopian,” said Weiss-Wolf. 

Additionally, describing abortion bans by weeks has additional implications for young people and others who may not not fall within the standardized 28-day cycle. In fact, upwards of 90 percent of people do not have a perfect 28-day cycle. 

Menstrual Illiteracy as a Casualty of Sex-Ed Wars

Youth populations are particularly vulnerable due to lack of education and knowledge about pregnancy and menstruation. According to Weiss-Wolf, relying on sex education to encourage an understanding of how weeks of pregnancy ties to reproductive care is difficult. 

Sex education requirements vary by state and the requirements that do exist, are under attack. Of the 30 states that mandate that sex and HIV programs meet certain requirements, only 18 of those states require that the content be medically accurate. Additionally, Florida’s “Don’t Say Period” law that went into effect July 2023 bars instruction on menstruation before sixth grade.

Fabricated language makes the reality of abortion in the U.S. difficult to interpret. So-called “fetal heartbeat bills” are exponentially harmful if people are unaware that six-weeks pregnant equates to two weeks (at best) to obtain an abortion. Given the current political climate and scarce access to abortion and reproductive care in the U.S., this has become virtually impossible even in states where access remains legal. 

“If you’re in a state where abortion is not accessible and you need to go to another state, even if you can drive there and it’s relatively easy to get to, that state is now taking people from other states, so they likely have backlogs. It is an exponentially challenging environment,” said Weiss-Wolf. 

Promoting Menstrual Literacy

One solution Weiss-Wolf has proposed is that the Food and Drug Administration mandate that information about the menstrual cycle on period product packaging and websites, similar to how it mandates tampon boxes to include information about toxic shock syndrome. This would allow for information to go directly to the hands of consumers of tampons, pads, period underwear and menstrual cups.

Ensuring that information about how pregnancy is measured is available to the public greatly improves people’s ability to participate in our democracy. 

“Our bodies are part of the body politic, literally,” said Weiss-Wolf. “Just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you’re not doing other things in your life. This is the information we’re entitled to know if the state is going to be weighing in on how we make medical decisions. And then if the state is misguided and clueless and wrong about it, that’s even worse and scarier. So we need to know this as citizens. We need to know this as voters. We need to know this as a matter of civic engagement, not just as people taking care of our own bodies and trying to protect ourselves.”

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Livia Follet is an editorial intern for Ms. and a recent graduate from The University of Colorado Boulder where she earned bachelor's degrees in English literature and women and gender studies. Raised in rural Colorado, her interests include environmental justice movements, Indigenous feminisms and reproductive justice.