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Should feminine hygiene products be free?

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Why are tampons considered a "luxury item" instead of a medical need?

Are tampons a right or a luxury? Many women around the world are asking that question and getting surprisingly different answers — answers are important because it can mean the difference between being able to work, take care of your family and go to school or being stuck at home because it's socially unacceptable to walk around trailing blood.

Many of us take our feminine hygiene products for granted. (I love my menstrual DivaCup with such a passion that it borders on zealotry. "I'd like to buy the world a Cup, and keep it company...." Sing it with me! You know you want to.) Yet, many poor people, both here in America and in developing nations, are deeply impacted by the affordability and availability of menstrual care products. Improper care can lead to disease and infection at worst and missed days from work at best.

All of which makes it sound like a basic human necessity, at the very least basic healthcare. So why are tampons and pads considered a "luxury" item by the government? Not only are they taxed (unlike many other health products) but they're also not covered under most welfare programs, which leads some women to sell their food stamps to buy them. According to Jessica Valenti, the root of the problem is "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."

Valenti, a columnist for The Guardian, knows first-hand of this lacking empathy as she brought down the hellfire of the internet when she asked on Twitter if anyone knew countries that provided free tampons. People responded with such hostility that it was clear the issue goes way beyond tiny, pink, plastic stoppers. Suggestions ranged from the imbecilic ("here's a thought: get married. Then your husband can pay for it. As long as your [sic] putting out") to the gross ("U need 2 stick a few fingers in UR you-know-what to stem the bleeding.") to the insane ("If Tampons could talk they would sound like you"). And those were the nice ones. Who knew so much idiocy and vitriol could be contained in a mere 140 characters?

Suddenly, the conversation veered from health products to the problems with being a woman in general; menstruation isn't just a feminine issue but also a feminist issue.

So what's the solution? (Other than pouring bleach over Twitter.) Amanda Marcotte writes in Slate, "Odds are that tampons will never be free for all women everywhere in the world, but thought experiments like Valenti’s can open the door to possibilities that make life a little more fair for women: repealing sales taxes on tampons, providing tampon subsidies to low-income women, putting free bowls of tampons into workplace bathroomspushing for innovations to lower the expense of sanitary products or offering tampons for free to girls and women in some developing countries so they don't miss school or work because of their periods."

Of course, one of the first replies to Marcotte's very reasonable proposal was:

"So what's next on the list of demands for 'free' because they are apparently more necessary than food? A. Cosmos B. Cupcakes C. Manolo Blahniks D. All of the above."

And perhaps tampons never should be totally free for every woman for her whole life. There are many intermediate solutions. Yet, in a world where men think that stilettos are on par with maxi pads, we can't even get into the economics discussion because we're too busy defending our unruly uteri.

Do you think feminine hygiene products should be subsidized or given away for free?

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