News out of Missouri that the health department is tracking women’s cycles is creepy, but it isn’t rare. Here’s what government officials are already doing with that intimate info.

By Rainesford Stauffer
Oct 30, 2019 @ 6:30 pm
Carol Yepes/Getty

If you’re a person who has a period, chances are, there’s a way you track it: Maybe you use an app, or a good-old-fashioned calendar. Maybe it’s as simple as keeping an eye on your body and noticing what’s coming. Practices of period tracking date fairly far back in history, including in early modern Europe, when well-off women would arrange their schedules to not leave their homes during that time.

What’s less expected, in the period-tracking realm, is that government officials would be tracking their constituents’ menstrual cycles. And yet, that’s exactly what has made headlines this week, and, most disturbingly, this isn’t the first time it has happened — it’s not even the first time this year.

The most recent example comes out of Missouri, which is in the midst of a week-long hearing that will decide the fate of the state’s last abortion clinic, a Planned Parenthood that is at risk of closing. Missouri state health director Dr. Randall Williams testified as an “expert witness” for the state. Williams shared that he keeps a spreadsheet which tracks the menstrual periods of women who visited Planned Parenthood, according to reporting by the Kansas City Star. His spreadsheet is said to be based on medical records, which he had access to, and include medical identification numbers, dates of patients’ last periods, and dates of medical procedures or attention they received. It has been called “government overreach” by Yamelsie Rodriguez, the St. Louis region’s CEO of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood. It also calls into question whether patient privacy was compromised (the Missouri House minority leader called on Governor Mike Parson to investigate this specifically).

Per Williams’ testimony, the goal of this spreadsheet was to identify people who have undergone “failed abortions,” or those who returned to the clinic for an abortion procedures after not completing it on a first visit. And here’s what you need to know about that: Williams is an OBGYN, and also testified he is pro-life. Previously, he introduced a state policy demanding that physicans perform a pelvic exam three days before a woman recieves a surgical abortion, which Planned Parenthood called “invasive” and “medicially unnecessary.” The idea is that Williams created a problem (women coming to Planned Parenthood in search of abortion care but not being able to get it that day), abused his access to information, and is now using that information to find “failures” in the clinic’s records, potentially forcing the state’s last abortion provider to shut down.

This isn’t the first time the government has betrayed boundaries out of an eagerness to regulate access to abortion and other reproductive health services. Despite a “wait WHAT?!” reaction to the Missouri case this week (especially after Rachel Maddow tweeted about it on Tuesday night), there’s been an eerie prevalence of government period tracking just in the last year alone. 

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In April 2019, news broke that the United States was tracking periods of migrant girls in their custody, in order to stop them from having abortions. There was a 28-page document full of teenagers (and some, according to MSNBC, not-yet-teenagers) who reported being raped, becoming pregnant as a result, and ending up with their personal data monitored because they wanted to get an abortion. Scott Lloyd, former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, positioned himself as a sort of gatekeeper, standing between undocumented young women and their healthcare, using a log of paper detailing dates of their periods and length of pregnancy as a means to further an anti-abortion agenda. 

The fact that there are 13-year-olds having their periods tracked in order to be pressured into pregnancies they don’t want is horrific enough to be beyond comprehension. But in the context of the Trump administration’s claims at the time that it was simply impossible to keep track of which kids came into the country with which parents, it’s outright, intentional cruelty.

App-based period-tracking also crossed into dystopian governmental overreach this year. An app called Femm came under fire in May 2019 when reporters investigated the app’s data collection, specifically about women’s periods, their birth control methods, and even when they’d had sex. At the outset, Femm doesn’t sound terribly different than other period tracking apps, which could be problematic in itself, given that some apps share data about your body and cycle to corporations or even laboratories. However, according to The Guardian, Femm could be the “first ideologically backed fertility app” — meaning the people collecting the data had plans, not unlike Williams’ in Missouri.

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The app is funded by a Catholic charity, the Chiaroscuro Foundation, whose head contributed $18 million toward anti-abortion candidates and causes between 2010 and 2014, and supported now-Vice President Mike Pence. The anti-abortion, pro-family-planning ideology exists within the technology itself, too: The Guardian found that two of Femm’s medical advisors are not licensed to practice medicine in the United States, and the app shares that the “natural” way for women not to get pregnant is to manage their own fertility cycle. (Of course, plenty of fertility apps and articles cover the rhythm method, or avoiding sex around ovulation to prevent pregnancy. Usually that’s accompanied by information about its failure rate, which is known to be significantly higher than any barrier or hormonal contraceptive, at around 25 pregnancies per 1,000 women using it each year). If your app suggests you try this method as a natural birth control, wouldn’t you want to know that the app itself is backed by an organization that’s ideologically opposed to other forms of reproductive healthcare?

While users obviously enter their data willingly, the creepier part of the equation is not entirely different than what has happened in Missouri: In that case, these patients were seeking medical care, and filling out forms with data that was pertinent to the care they expected to get — they were not consenting to have their periods logged for a political agenda.

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In all of the above cases — which, again, have taken place within the last six months — the end game was limiting people’s rights to access healthcare, by using personal, intimate information that was accessed sneakily, dishonestly, or otherwise ill-gotten. In the case of the migrant girls and Missouri, patients’ information is being used against them to stop them from having access, either through not permitting them to have an abortion, or closing the last abortion provider down altogether. With Femm, private details are being used to push an anti-abortion agenda when it comes to contraception, which is also under attack. The repression of rights, and exploitation of information, takes away a woman’s right to make clear-headed choices about her body while having access to all the information she needs to do so.

The information mining itself is a betrayal of trust that has snuck up on unsuspecting women across the country, and it has already proven its potential to grow into something way worse.

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