Shouldn’t everything be free? For women, I mean?

The other day, I saw references to an article asking for free tampons. I figured this was a parody, a Swiftian piece intended to illustrate the absurdity of demands that insurers provide contraception at no out-of-pocket cost for reasons of “fairness” by making other “fairness” demands, so I didn’t pay much attention to it.

But apparently it’s not.

Here’s the Slate piece that made it clear that this is serious, and here’s the original article in The Guardian by Jessica Valenti.

The key paragraphs:

In the United States, access to tampons and pads for low-income women is a real problem, too: food stamps don’t cover feminine hygiene products, so some women resort to selling their food stamps in order to pay for “luxuries” like tampons. Women in prison often don’t have access to sanitary products at all, and the high cost of a product that half the population needs multiple times a day, every month for approximately 30 years, is simply, well, bullshit.

Women in the UK are fighting to axe the 5% tax on tampons (it used to be taxed at 17.5%!), which are considered “luxuries” while men’s razors, for some baffling reason, are not. And in the US, though breast pumps, vasectomies and artificial teeth are sales tax-exempt and tax-deductible medical care, tampons are not even exempted from sales tax in some states (including California and New York, two of the most populous states).

But this is less an issue of costliness than it is of principle: menstrual care is health care, and should be treated as such. But much in the same way insurance coverage or subsidies for birth control are mocked or met with outrage, the idea of women even getting small tax breaks for menstrual products provokes incredulousness because some people lack an incredible amount of empathy … and because it has something to do with vaginas. Affordable access to sanitary products is rarely talked about outside of NGOs – and when it is, it’s with shame or derision.

Now, I’m not going to address the reasoning behind the UK tax treatment  (does that mean that razors are not taxed? that is admittedly odd), and I certainly can’t address the cost of tampons in the UK—I suppose there could be some strange price support on wood products that artificially increases tampon cost there, but that seems unlikely. But on the whole, tampons just aren’t that expensive.

But “menstrual care is health care” and, hence, should be free?

Of course the poor have trouble paying for their basic needs. That’s what it means to be poor. And there are all kinds of items that fall into the category of “basic needs” that aren’t covered by food stamps: TP. Soap. Toothpaste. Sunscreen. Over-the-counter medications. Or, more big-ticket items: clothing, housing, transit expenses. Or, per the news out of Detroit, water bills.

A philosophy that says, “The government should pay for every basic need, for everyone” (via vouchers designated for the purpose?  free product?) simply makes no sense. That’s not the government’s job—unless you want to go back to advocating for the “basic income” idea, I suppose—though our welfare system and the mix of in-kind and cash benefits the American government provides the poor certainly could stand to be rationalized.

Yes, of course, the situation in developing countries is potentially a serious one, with girls leaving school in Africa due to the lack of sanitary products. But Valenti doesn’t stay there—she moves to the travails of middle-class women.

Do tampons have a special status because only women use them? Doesn’t this just seem inherently foolish, to insist on sex-specific free stuff? How far do you go? Should women get free bras? Couldn’t men get into this game, too? Men are, on average, larger, and need more calories, for instance.

But it’s ironic that the illustration I had always thought of as the counter-example to demonstrate that women don’t need free contraception for fairness’ sake is being used in precisely the opposite way. 

Do they even know what “equality” and “fairness” mean?

Reprinted with permission from the blog “Jane the Actuary” – A.L. 

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