Policy Expert: One More Reason To Abandon High-Tech Period-Tracker Apps

Experts acknowledge that period-tracking apps indeed pose a potential hazard for users, even when companies tout stringent privacy protocols. Some advocates recommend opting instead for a simple pen and paper calendar.

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The leaked majority ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization has sounded alarms about the future of reproductive rights in the United States. Among the concerns raised are privacy risks associated with using period-tracking apps, and whether the data they amass—detailed entries by people about myriad aspects of their menstrual cycles—can be exploited by law enforcement or private actors in states where abortion and even pregnancy outcomes are criminalized.

These are not hypothetical concerns. At least half the states in the U.S. are certain or likely to ban abortions if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade; 13 will do so right away under trigger laws currently in place. Louisiana lawmakers have already attempted to classify abortion as a homicide.

Legal experts acknowledge that period-tracking apps indeed pose a potential hazard for users, even when companies tout stringent privacy protocols. Some recommend opting instead for a simple pen and paper calendar.

The low-tech approach has benefits that extend far beyond protecting individuals from their digital footprint. Full fluency in the ebbs and flows of the menstrual cycle is not just a matter of good personal health, but a civic necessity for navigating a post-Roe society.

Consider the remarks made by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in support of S.B. 8, his state's law that has all but obliterated abortion access in Texas since last September. By creating liability for anyone who provides or helps someone procure an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually at around the six-week mark of pregnancy, S.B.8 is among those that have earned the moniker "six-week ban." Gov. Abbott asserted at a press conference the day after the law went into effect that it doesn't pose a burden because "it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion."

This is patently false. A "six-week ban" on abortion is not the same as a six-week window to obtain one. Pregnancy is measured by the date of the last menstrual period ("LMP"), not the date of the missed period. For those whose cycles are a precise 28-day rotation, they are two weeks pregnant on the day of conception and four weeks pregnant on the first day of a missed period. For those whose cycles are longer or irregular or who have intermittent bleeding—which is the vast majority, as only 13 percent of women report typically having 28-day cycles—LMP is an almost meaningless metric.

This means that in the rare best-case scenario—an accurate pregnancy test result on the first day of a missed period in a predictable 28-day cycle—a person has a maximum of two weeks to obtain an abortion, an impossibly slim window of opportunity. And all too often, a flat-out impossibility for those impacted by barriers like state-enforced waiting periods or delays due to long-distance travel to a clinic or backlogs in appointments.

Lawmakers like Gov. Abbott are either ignorant about basic biology or banking on getting by with murky math and lies, which is why it is increasingly essential that every person—and every voter—be better educated and equipped to cut through misinformation about the menstrual cycle, particularly regarding policies impacting early pregnancy and abortion.

Unfortunately, we can't currently rely on our nation's schools to teach these lessons. Not only is sex education an increasingly polarized and partisan issue, but 21 states have no mandate to provide it at all. Given the urgency of the moment, one intervention is to call upon the private sector to fill the breach.

Menstruation itself corners a vast commercial market. Billions of consumers worldwide buy tampons, pads, period underwear and menstrual cups, as well as other supplies and resources, on a regular basis. Federal law can and should require menstrual product companies doing business in the U.S. to provide standardized, medically accurate information about the menstrual cycle in their packaging and on consumer web sites—much like the Food and Drug Administration mandates uniform language in tampon boxes to warn about the risks and symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. Given that many newer, smaller period product companies already make menstrual advocacy part of their mission—participating in campaigns to address period poverty, combat stigma or the 'tampon tax'—menstrual literacy could be a timely and coordinated extension of their efforts.

For that matter, any type of company could use its platform to amplify trusted literature on menstruation. Several have already stepped up to ease employees' access to abortion, including Levi Strauss and Citigroup; menstrual literacy resources would be an excellent addition. The nonprofit Our Bodies, Ourselves offers an accessible online library; Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health has published user-friendly menstruation guides for teens and teachers.

We are entering an ominous new chapter for reproductive and bodily autonomy in this country. Mastery of the mechanics of menstruation is essential for good health and good civics—and, for many, will be critical to their personal safety and survival.

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