A non-binding resolution from State Sen. Ed Reilly calling for “female monthly cycle tracking for adolescent girls” to be added to school health curriculum has drawn criticism from reproductive health professionals and women who say the proposal is invasive and inappropriate.
Senate Joint Resolution 5 calls on the Maryland State Board of Education to update the comprehensive health education program to include standards for instruction on female monthly cycle tracking for adolescent girls. It’s set to be heard by the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee at 11 a.m. on Feb. 11.
Reilly, a Republican from Crofton, said the resolution — which mentions fertility awareness and maintaining a healthy reproductive system — is an effort to help women better understand their reproductive health. It’s a proactive measure against issues like thyroid disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome, which can lead to other medical issues later in life, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The resolution calls for adolescent girls to learn to chart their cervical mucus patterns, which is a commonly known form of fertility awareness and natural family planning.
Reilly said he’s not calling for the school system to track the menstrual cycles of students, but instead wants to equip young women with the skills they need to do it themselves if they are interested. He and his wife, a certified fertility care practitioner, used cervical mucus pattern charting for 23 years in their marriage as a means of family planning. He said he wishes they’d learned about it sooner.
Kimberly Haven, the project director at Reproductive Justice Inside a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring reproductive care for incarcerated and detained people, said a program that Reilly envisions presents too much government interference in a teenager’s life.
“This just continues to perpetuate stigmatization and shame and embarrassment (around periods),” Haven said. “This is straight up Handmaid’s Tale in Maryland.” (A nod to the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which women’s fertility was highly regulated and monitored.)
Current sex education curriculum
The Maryland Public Schools curriculum for family life and human sexuality calls for students to begin learning about reproductive anatomy and systems in 6th grade. It explains menstruation, fertilization and implantation by 8th grade.
In early high school, the curriculum calls for teachers to compare and contrast types of contraceptive and disease-prevention methods, including fertility awareness.
The curriculum says parents can opt their children out of the family life and human sexuality education starting in 4th grade, when students first begin to learn about puberty and sexual orientation.
In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, health education resource teacher Maureen Grizio said that all classes follow the state curriculum, are fact-based and are taught to co-ed groups.
Students’ personal information isn’t used in the curriculum except in cases when students are led to create self management plans to help them deal with stress or difficult situations, Grizio said.
“We want to give students the facts so they can make decisions with their values,” Grizio said.
AACPS is not taking a position on the resolution, spokesman Bob Mosier said.
“We believe the curriculum we provide to our students allows them to gain ample knowledge to make good decisions,” he said, “and empowers them to have conversations with trusted adults in their lives regarding these critical health and hygiene issues.”
The Maryland State Department of Education has yet to take a statement on the resolution, said spokesperson Lora Rakowski.
Diana Philip, executive director of NARAL Pro Choice Maryland, said the organization will oppose the resolution because they believe it would be an unnecessary addition to the curriculum.
When envisioning the implementation of this type of training, Haven questioned the gender aspect of the resolution. Reilly only refers to girls and females, but does not mention boys, transgender or nonbinary children, who might experience puberty in a way that aligns with their assigned birth sex but does not align with their gender.
“It just completely discounts a whole swath of students,” Haven said. “It is stupid, invasive, insulting and intrusive.”
Reilly said he “would love to look at” any legislation that took aim at similar training for adolescent boys, and said he would be eager to support a Senate bill that would provide free menstrual hygiene products in public schools.
The resolution’s inspiration
Reilly was inspired by Dr. Marguerite Duane, a family practice physician and adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University.
Though charting cervical mucus patterns can be used as a form of natural family planning, she said, when she teaches adolescents about it she avoids using the term “fertility” at all.
For adolescents, she said, it’s about body literacy.
“It’s not simply a matter of ‘I don’t know why I’m so miserable today,’” Duane said. “It’s normal. You’re not crazy, you’re hormonal.”
Duane is a research fellow in fertility awareness in women’s health that includes a master’s of public health at the University of Utah. She was assigned to draft a resolution in one of her classes, and eventually sent it to Reilly to get his feedback.
Duane recommends an initial informed consent session with parents to go over curriculum, then a one-hour session with the students to “review the basics about charting the female cycle,” and then a few follow-ups between two and four weeks apart.
A white paper she penned calls for “15-30 minutes every other week to review the students’ charts and answer their questions.” Duane said this does not mean that students are required to show the instructor their chart, but instead asks students to review their own chart and check in. Instead of showing students actual examples of cervical fluids, she recommends using egg whites or dried glue to demonstrate what students should expect.
Duane acknowledged that it’s unusual for adolescents to have regular menstrual cycles at first but it should eventually settle into a predictable pattern. If she sees a patient who started their period at 13 and still doesn’t have a regular cycle at 16, it could be a sign that something is wrong.
Teaching students to understand the different phases of their menstrual cycle allows them to know almost exactly when to expect their period, she said.
“That is life changing for teens. To not be on a volleyball field trip and get your period because you’re not expecting it,” Duane said, “it is so empowering when girls get to that point.”
Though fertility awareness is often associated with Catholicism and abstinence-only education, Duane said she thinks the approach of not teaching sex education isn’t the right approach.
“This is the way female bodies are designed to function,” Duane said. “Nobody’s ovaries are Catholic.”
‘I Bled for Ed’
Sharon Blugis, a women’s issue advocate for the Women Indivisible Strong and Effective group, called the resolution “another thinly veiled attempt to try to control women’s reproductive lives.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
In her frustration over the resolution, Blugis started a Facebook group entitled “I Bled for Ed.” She’s mobilizing community members to testify, and calling on Reilly to withdraw the resolution.
Then, she said, he should apologize to his Senate colleagues: “It’s a pandemic. People are dying and businesses are closing every day and this is what he wants to talk about? Tracking adolescent periods?”
Blugis was inspired by the “Periods for Pence,” campaign that started in Indiana after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed a law that created restrictions on abortions. Women were encouraged to provide period updates to the governor in protest.
Reilly said he hasn’t been on Facebook in over a year and couldn’t comment on “I Bled for Ed,” because it is a private group. He declined to comment on general criticism, saying only “I can’t comment on ignorance.”
Kristen Caminiti, a constituent of Reilly’s and a mother of four, said the lack of any women cosponsors is concerning. If the resolution is meant to empower women, it would likely have support from women senators.
“Resolutions are often put forth to make a point or earn points, which leaves me wondering, what point is he making and with whom is he trying to earn points?”