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What every member of Congress should know about vaginas

Jen Gunter, a gynecologist, is sending her new book about women’s reproductive health, “The Vagina Bible,” to every member of Congress. (Jason LeCras)

A bill currently winding through the Pennsylvania legislature would require the remains of miscarriages or abortions occurring in health-care facilities — anything past the point of “fertilization,” the bill clarifies — be buried or cremated. As a person with more early miscarriage experience than I’d like, I am confused. Do lawmakers plan to come stand over the toilets of miscarrying women with an eyedropper? Or should the women just bring their bloody sanitary napkins into an emergency room so the hospitals — who are pinned with responsibility in the language of the legislation — can fashion a thumbtack-sized coffin?

It may sound like I’m using sardonic humor to conceal grief. I am actually projecting earnest bafflement to conceal rage. Do the legislators supporting this bill, which was approved this week by the state House Health Committee, have the slightest idea how miscarriages often work? Do they understand female biology at all?

Which is why I was gratified to learn that Jen Gunter, a gynecologist who has found national fame via fact-checking specious women’s health claims — you may know her as the woman who regularly speaks truth to Goop — was planning to mail 535 copies of her book, “The Vagina Bible,” to every member of the U.S. Congress.

You can drop in on almost any point in American history and be horrified by what our elected and appointed officials do not understand about reproductive health. You can listen to the Supreme Court's oral arguments on the 1965 decision Griswold v. Connecticut, in which nine men bashfully sputter through a discussion of whether birth control would lead to "immorality" and notice how the justices were so clearly embarrassed they could only refer euphemistically to "devices."

Or, you can drop in on Twitter this week to read NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue’s account of a young woman who tried to make tampons available in her middle school bathroom only to come up against a principal who refused, Hogue wrote, because girls might “abuse the privilege.”

The privilege of . . . having the means to deal with a mandatory bodily function? Abuse it by . . . using 27 tampons at once, willy-nilly, for the fun of it all?

Things may have changed for women over the last few decades, but educational videos about menstruation have remained consistently awkward. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

This is a principal who cannot possibly understand the mechanics of menstruation. But then again, neither does the Department of Homeland Security, at least according to recent lawsuit alleging that migrant girls, denied adequate access to menstrual products, were bleeding through their pants.

Lord. Please. “Vagina Bibles” for all of them.

What I’ve always appreciated about Dr. Jen — everyone calls her Dr. Jen — is her generous, optimistic viewpoint that these lunacies happen not because officials are evil, but because officials are ignorant. Folly can be fought with facts. “The Vagina Bible” is not a screed; it is a measured, pragmatic manual detailing how the female reproductive system works or doesn’t. It does not explicitly argue for policy changes; it implicitly argues that officials in charge of policies should at least understand what they’re voting for.

“There are laws that are just in opposition to basic medical facts,” Dr. Jen told me. “Right now, the burden of menstruation is put on half the population,” she said, while the laws affecting menstruation are often written by the other half of the population. “I prefer to think about menstruation as a natural resource,” she said. “Every person on the planet owes their life to it.”

If male lawmakers had a better understanding of reproduction, she says, maybe they would finally regulate the “pink tax,” a phenomenon in which women’s hygiene products are priced 13 percent higher than men’s, and tampons are taxed as if they’re luxury goods rather than biological necessities. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) is Gunter’s representative and a co-sponsor of the Pink Tax Repeal Act; she said in a statement that she is “extremely proud of my constituent.”

If lawmakers were more informed on the health-care needs of transgender individuals, then maybe they wouldn’t support rolling back Obama-era transgender protections, as the Trump administration has proposed doing.

Maybe everyone could learn something. Maybe things could just stop sucking quite so much.

This is a stunt, obviously. People send books and pamphlets to members of Congress all the time. This is a good stunt — underwritten in part by Andy Shallal, a beloved Washington restaurateur — but still. Can I picture Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) sitting in his office, reading up on women's sexual function post-pregnancy? I cannot.

But I like knowing the book will be on his shelf. Or, at least in his mailbox, for a day or two, until an intern chucks it.

I like the premise of the stunt: that laws should come from a place of compassion and science, not point-scoring and punishment.

Dr. Jen and I talked about tampons. We talked about a recent news story about how the Missouri state health director has been bizarrely tracking patients’ periods. “I don’t even have words to describe how horrible that is,” she said.

When I bring up the proposed Pennsylvania legislation on disposal of fetal remains, Dr. Jen sighed. Some parents, she pointed out, might find deep comfort in choosing to hold a memorial service following miscarriages or abortions. But mandating burial would put hospitals in charge of determining what a woman’s pregnancy should mean to her, rather than allowing her to take the lead.

“I had a son die at 22 weeks,” Dr. Jen told me. He was one of triplets; her other children are teenagers now. Her son’s ashes are still in her closet, because she’s never wanted to bury him in a city she might not permanently live in. “How dare you tell me what’s dignified?”

We talked about how exhausting it is to keep up with these kind of legislative efforts, which seem to pop up, Whac-A-Mole style, every passing week. About the intersection of law, medicine and humanity, and about the wide-eyed optimism of trying to make a difference.

Dr. Jen’s publicist emailed me later and said books have just gone in the mail. “The Vagina Bibles” are on the move, and there’s nothing left to do but pray.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit

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