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Analysis

When ‘Six Weeks’ Is Actually Two: Understanding Periods Is Essential to Fighting Abortion Bans

We must beat the drum on menstrual fluency as a way to fight this wave of unsound, unconstitutional restrictions on abortion.

November 9, 2021
View the entire Abortion Rights Are Essential to Democracy series

A few years ago, I co-authored an essay with a Repub­lican state legis­lator who opposes abor­tion. We wrote: “When it comes to repro­duct­ive health, there aren’t many issues on which the two of us—a heart­land conser­vat­ive and a pro-choice New York­er­—find common ground. Yet one policy prior­ity has enabled us to skirt partisan rancor: peri­ods. For our part, we’ve each played a role in making the issue a matter of domestic policy, start­ing with elim­in­at­ing the so-called tampon tax. It is a relat­ively simple argu­ment that has come to pack a big polit­ical punch.”

As a dedic­ated menstrual equity advoc­ate, it has been my hope and goal that advan­cing policies to ameli­or­ate period poverty would do double duty—sim­ul­tan­eously educat­ing polit­ical lead­ers, the media and the general public about the mech­an­ics of menstru­ation. To me, the fight has never been solely about ensur­ing afford­able, access­ible menstrual product­s—but also giving a public plat­form to elev­ate the very ways our bodies func­tion.

Yet there contin­ues to be a visible, troub­ling discon­nect in our collect­ive liter­acy and recog­ni­tion of the menstrual cycle—espe­cially vis-à-vis the way we frame early preg­nancy and abor­tion. Case in point: When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott spoke to the press about his support­ive signa­ture on S.B. 8, the new law that all but oblit­er­ates the consti­tu­tion­ally protec­ted right to abor­tion in the state, he remarked:

“[O]bviously it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abor­tion.”

He is 100 percent wrong. A “six-week ban” on abor­tion is emphat­ic­ally not the same as a six-week window to obtain one. A quick 101: Preg­nancy is meas­ured by the date of the last menstrual period, also called “LMP.” This is a medical term, not just a day circled in red on the calen­dar. The preg­nancy clock has already star­ted tick­ing before the moment of concep­tion.  

To under­score, for those whose cycles are a perfect 28-day rota­tion, a person is four weeks preg­nant on the first day of a missed period, thereby allow­ing a mere two weeks to obtain an abor­tion—a sliver of a window even for the most resourced among us. For those whose cycles are longer or irreg­u­lar or who have inter­mit­tent bleed­ing—read, the vast major­ity of us—LMP is an almost mean­ing­less metric. (I say this as someone who conceived while breast-feed­ing an older infant; in my case, LMP was well more than a full year prior!)

And for those who live in places where abor­tion and other health care services are few and far between—or are subject to hurdles imposed by legis­latures like mandat­ory wait­ing times, or just the economic and logist­ical chal­lenges of daily life—that two-week time­frame is a legally-proscribed impossib­il­ity.

Unfor­tu­nately, Gov. Abbott is not alone in his ignor­ance. Too many regu­lar Amer­ic­ans are quick to think exactly what he said out loud when they hear “six-week ban.” This is danger­ous for Texans right here and now, but also makes other uncon­sti­tu­tional bans on abor­tion, like the one in Missis­sippi that outlaws all abor­tions after 15 weeks, to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term, sound gener­ous by compar­ison.

There’s already push­back to usage of false and fabric­ated language to define abor­tion. As Carrie Baker wrote here at Ms. about the phrase “fetal heart­beat bill,” S.B. 8’s other alias: “This fram­ing is based on junk science.” And yet, major news outlet­s—the New York TimesLA Times and USA Today among them—all have repeated this trope in recent weeks.

Other legis­lat­ive verbiage that smacks of junk science occurs in mandates for “fetal funeral” provi­sions, whereby a state regu­lates over­sight of the dispos­i­tion of fetal remains; these bills implic­ate not just abor­tions but also spon­tan­eous miscar­riages, some of which are never even detec­ted—­tech­nic­ally, one could be subject to crim­inal penal­ties for what was other­wise thought to be a late or heavy period.

These may well be the result of sheer obli­vi­ous­ness—­though more likely part of the delib­er­ate punit­ive intent of these laws. Either way, our abil­ity to call out misguided menstrual science and math is an imper­at­ive advocacy strategy.

As for the “six-week” moniker, while medic­ally accur­ate, it is far from neut­ral short­hand. Beyond check­ing and chan­ging the language wherever we can—­though I real­ize that “two-weeks-at-most ban” is a mouth­ful—we can and must beat the drum on menstrual fluency as a way to fight this wave of unsound, uncon­sti­tu­tional restric­tions on abor­tion.