A Bodily Barrier to Legal Abortion

Under new restrictions, irregular menstrual cycles could keep women from seeking the procedure.

Jenna Nobles

Nobles says that “a large share of the population have long or highly irregular cycles and could not reasonably learn about their pregnancy in time to seek a legal abortion” under laws in effect or under consideration. Destiny Schaefer

More than one in five women experience irregular menstrual cycles that could keep them from learning they are pregnant until it’s too late to access an abortion under some state laws in effect or under consideration.

Researchers from UW–Madison and the National Institutes of Health analyzed anonymized data on 1.6 million menstrual cycles provided by more than 267,000 adults to a cycle-tracking app. Twenty-two percent of the people in the study had irregular menstrual cycles that differed in length from one cycle to the next by seven or more days.

“For almost everyone, the first symptom of a pregnancy is a missed period,” says UW sociology professor Jenna Nobles, coauthor of the study. “But a large share of the population have long or highly irregular cycles and could not reasonably learn about their pregnancy in time to seek a legal abortion under laws that set limits at detectable fetal cardiac activity or six weeks.”

The age group most likely to have cycles of irregular length is 18- to 24-year-olds — also the ages with the highest abortion rates in the United States.

Experts in reproductive health know that variation in menstrual-cycle length is common, according to Nobles, but the new study is remarkable for demonstrating how short the window can be between a missed period and fetal cardiac activity.

Published in the Summer 2022 issue

Tags: Health and medicine, Science, women

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