As Boston prepares a pilot program that would offer free menstrual products in the city’s public buildings, three city councilors are pushing for the city to widen its focus by including contraceptive methods such as condoms and Plan B into the program.
City Councilor Gabriela Coletta has refiled a hearing order, with Councilors Ruthzee Louijeune and Ricardo Arroyo as co-sponsors, to try and persuade the city’s Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy to add contraceptives to the program, which is aimed to start up in the upcoming months. She first filed a hearing order to consider menstrual products and emergency contraception vending machines last summer shortly after the US Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade.
“This is just to increase public dialogue,” said Coletta, who said she wants to see innovative efforts introduced citywide to break down “barriers to provide birth control, and have people that identify as women feel empowered to make these decisions, and not have to worry about what happens next.”
In a post-Roe v. Wade era, advocates of the proposal say it’s urgent that local government do its part in safeguarding residents as reproductive rights remain in limbo on the federal level. More than 70,000 people between ages 13 and 44 in Massachusetts are “in-need” of publicly funded contraceptives and supplies, according to data compiled by unplanned pregnancy prevention campaign Power to Decide.
“During a climate where we see successful attempts at restricting access to abortion, making emergency contraception available on demand is part of centering health equity and health justice, allowing for folks to choose the decisions that are best for their body, and making that as accessible as possible,” Louijeune said.
Local universities have already stepped up, she said, so “we should be taking their lead at the city level and making it accessible across the city.”
The hearing order is a nod to the similar efforts that were launched last year by schools like Brandeis, Boston, Tufts, and Northeastern universities.
Alexandra Valdez, executive director of the Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy, said the pilot project goes hand-in-hand with an educational initiative. As the office nears the pilot’s launch, expected in the next few months, it is encouraging residents to destigmatize menstruation and will make information available in languages spoken throughout the city.
Last year, the office held listening sessions in Grove Hall, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain to better understand the needs of women and gender-expansive individuals. It also launched a “Redefining Womanhood” survey to gather feedback.
The office is still working out the logistics of how the plan will work, including types of products, where and how the products would be distributed, how many sites would have the products available, and how much it would cost.
“We want to make sure that we don’t use just a one-hat-fits-all model and that we are able to bring accessibility in all forms,” Valdez said.
Coletta said having such services implemented in the city could address the health care deserts created by the November closing of three Walgreens stores in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.
“That’s where a lot of people get their health care needs met, and that’s where a lot of folks get their menstrual products,” Coletta said.
Valdez said her office and Coletta have discussed adding emergency contraceptive products to the program, but for now, their focus is on menstruation products.
The hearing order, which is vaguely worded, leaves room for community guidance, but it’s already opened up some questions and concerns. Bria Gadsden and Fabienne Eliacin of Love Your Menses, a local nonprofit focused on addressing menstrual inequities, both said that offering menstrual products and contraception like the Plan B morning-after pill in the same vending machine could fuel misnomers and concerns some parents have about the start of menstruation and what it means for their children’s sexual activity.
“There’s such a period stigma from the community, especially when you’re tying it with emergency contraception,” said Eliacin, who is a program coordinator with Love Your Menses. “It’d just be good to divide them.”
As Boston ponders widening such access, some cities around the country have already taken steps.
New York City, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Austin, Texas provide free menstrual hygiene products in public buildings.
Closer to home, Brookline became the first municipality in the nation, it is believed, in 2019 to pass an ordinance offering free menstrual products in all restrooms run by the municipality. Rebecca Stone, a member of Brookline’s Commission for Women, said it costs about $40,000 upfront to buy and place about 120 vending machines, and about $2,000 a year to replenish the products.
“The budget implications are real, but they are by no means onerous in multi-hundred-million-dollar municipal budgets” like Boston’s, Stone said.
Massachusetts does have some edge over other parts of the country, though: It’s one of 28 states that don’t tax menstrual hygiene products, along with the District of Columbia, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies.
On the state level, lawmakers have introduced the I AM bill, which would provide free menstrual products in schools, homeless shelters, prisons, and all state buildings, for the third legislative session in a row.
Sasha Goodfriend, executive director of the Massachusetts National Organization for Women, or Mass NOW, said statewide reforms face larger hurdles, including more red tape and a larger legislative body consisting of many lawmakers who don’t menstruate or have experienced period poverty or inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products and education.
“The city can pass policy often a lot faster than the state can,” Goodfriend said.
And, she said, hearing orders like the one proposed by the Boston city councilors help “legitimize the period poverty as an issue that should be in public policy. It interrupts the silence and invisibility that has surrounded periods forever.”
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.