No, Scotland did not just pass a bill to provide menstrual products to all in need
Not yet, at least, and this is why news accuracy matters for MHM
Written By: Deborah Jordan Brooks, Ph.D.
Edited by Dhwani Kharel, IMHER Research Assistant
In recent weeks, headlines have been blaring that Scotland will now be providing menstrual products to all menstruators: “Scotland Set to be the First Country to Provide Free Pads and Tampons,” “Scotland to make menstrual products free,” “Scotland becomes first country to end ‘period poverty’ with the offering of free menstrual hygiene products,” and so on. Many within MHM from both big and small organizations excitedly, and nearly instantly, shared the news of its supposed passage with social and professional networks via social media.
At IMHER, we understand the excitement about the Scottish bill. After all, a plan for a country to provide free menstrual products to all menstruators – and not just to school girls (which Scotland was already well ahead of the curve on, as one of the first countries to pass a bill to that effect in 2018) – would be a path-breaking global “first.”
The problem is that Scotland has not actually passed such a bill in question yet. Rather, it has just cleared one of many stages on the road to potential – but not guaranteed – final passage.
There are enough real successes in the MHM realm in recent years that there is no reason to prematurely claim a final victory. Acknowledging that the mere presence of this bill on a national legislative stage represents a significant achievement – even prior to passing it – would have been an appropriate way to discuss the pending bill. But instead, it was all too easy – and more click worthy – to make bigger, grander claims.
Unfortunately, however, overstatements and misinformation can come at some cost. Beyond the credibility of MHM information more generally, there are practical reasons to want to watch the progress of this bill in particular. Any opposition or changes it faces on its upcoming parliamentary path may prove to be useful to those interested in pursuing similar menstrual product bills elsewhere. So consider storing away the champagne – or Irn-Bru, as the case may be – to celebrate with later.
Current Status of the Bill
As a political scientist, I have seen the progress of many promising bills go awry. As such, it is important to maintain caution until a final bill has been passed. Even when initial signs are positive for legislation, amendments can sometimes gut the intent of a bill. Emerging issues, new information, strategic procedural delays, and/or late-to-emerge opposition have often derailed a process that was expected to be smooth. In politics, as they say, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
At this point, the bill in question has only passed through the first of multiple stages required within the Scottish Parliamentary system. With 112 “aye” votes and just one abstention at the conclusion of Stage 1, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about it, as several Scottish reporters IMHER contacted about it seemed to be.
That said, the Stage 1 vote taken in recent weeks only represents agreement with the principles within the bill; it does not represent any kind of binding agreement to pass it. It would be possible, for example, to voice support for the principle of girls obtaining products (indeed, it might even be politically advantageous from a position-taking perspective), while still rejecting the final version of the bill, based on cost or other objections.
This particular bill still faces quite a journey before it can become a law. For one thing, although the bill eventually received bipartisan agreement for its principles, it was not without early opposition, largely about the cost. Implications to taxpayers may potentially reemerge as an issue when new cost data and the results of an ongoing pilot test become available.
Moreover, unexpected costs and shifting attention associated with new issues always has the potential to change legislative trajectories. In this case, the effort to combat COVID-19 infections and its many implications for other aspects of policy making has suddenly become a political wild card around the world, perhaps especially with respect to legislation that bears on any aspect of health care. But political winds can change quickly, and the potential for emergent issues – whether financial downturns, terrorism, or natural disasters – means that victories should not be celebrated until nearly any bill has been formally passed into law.
At this point, the bill has not yet been amended (i.e., Stage 2 of Scottish Parliamentary procedure), nor has it received the more detailed scrutiny that typically occurs during the procedural points before “Decision Time,” which occurs at the end of Stage 3.
In terms of its likely timeline, all that is known with certainty is that, to have a chance of passing, the bill would need to receive a positive Decision Time vote before the Parliament adjourns for elections, which are to be held in March 2021.
Scottish parliamentary procedure mandates that there will be other procedural stages after that point (i.e., a four-week time frame for legal dissent will be lodged, “Royal Assent” will need to be granted, etc.). However, barring the unexpected emergence of a credible legal challenge, the final Decision Time vote would be an appropriate time to celebrate this bill as a victory.
Policy vs. Implementation
While the result of the Decision Time vote may be a reasonable time to make a toast to progress in this case, it is also worth mentioning that passing a bill does not guarantee that menstrual products will actually be made available to those who need them.
For example, Kenya has passed bills in the past to provide menstrual products to school girls. It represented a significant legislative success on paper, but many working on MHM in Kenya have reported to IMHER that it has not yet resulted in the widespread availability of menstrual supplies in schools.
Implementation problems happen around the world. Indeed, despite my own participation in a successful team effort in New Hampshire to pass a bill requiring public schools to provide disposable products to menstruators in bathrooms as of September 2019, my daughter still finds only broken, empty pad and tampon machines in the bathrooms at her own middle school, seven months later.
As legislative successes begin to accumulate, this is just a reminder that checking in a year or two after implantation dates to see if women are actually receiving what was promised can be an important additional step to evaluating legislative success. And it is a less “exciting” – and often frustrating – step that too often tends to be forgotten, as people and the media turn their focus to the next big win.
Why Accuracy in Reporting (and Sharing) Matters in MHM
Headlines matter. Most people will never get past the headline of a news article. Therefore, the misleading headlines about this bill can have an effect on those who see them. Moreover, those who do actually read a whole article are far more likely to misread the content of an article if its headline was misleading.
The problem did not only reside in misleading titles, however. While the articles written by Scottish news sources tended to contain most of the necessary nuance at least somewhere in the text, many sources based elsewhere often just claimed that it had passed without any clarification.
A prevalence of overstatements and misinformation has the potential to compromise the credibility of a field that is trying to be taken seriously by funding organizations and other global health decision-makers. Global MHM has faced more than its share of challenges on the information quality front (see, for example, Chris Bobel’s discussion of “Zombie Statistics” regarding global menstrual hygiene in her book, The Managed Body.)
Overstatements and misinformation are never defensible as a news practice. But more concretely, in this case, overstating a success can make it hard to sort out the “signal” from the “noise” when it comes to passing ideas into law, and it can make it hard to differentiate between real-world progress and ideas with potential.
When writing on menstrual hygiene legislation (or any legislation, for that matter), good practice for reporters should include:
- BE CLEAR ABOUT THE CURRENT LEGISLATIVE STAGE. If the bill has passed into law, say that. If it faces further stages of consideration or likely political hurdles, convey that. Especially when reporting on legislation from a country other than your own, make sure that relevant aspects of the political process are sufficiently understood by the writer and then summarized accurately for readers.
- PUT KEY INFORMATION IN THE TITLE. Has the legislation, in fact, passed into law? Or has it merely passed over one of many hurdles? If it is the latter, put that on top of the article. As mentioned above, relatively few people read much past the title, and misleading titles can cause people to misremember the information they read. Anyone involved in reporting – or sharing – the news should make sure that titles accurately convey the story, even when that means that they might be a bit clunkier or less click-worthy as a result.
- ALSO WRITE FOLLOW-UP STORIES 1-2 YEARS AFTER IMPLEMENTATION. After the headlines of successful bill passage fade, reporters and policymakers tend to focus on other newer issues. Returned attention to how legislation is playing out and improving lives (or not) can also be an important and interesting story.
Those sharing the news with the networks via social media are not off the hook either. There are practices that can prevent being part of the problem of overstatements and misinformation in the MHM media environment.
- ALWAYS READ BEFORE YOU REPOST. It is estimated that on social media, about 3 out of 5 people reposting articles don’t bother to read the articles they recommend to others. Before reposting/reblogging /retweeting anything about the legislative progress, always read the article carefully to make sure that the title accurately conveys what the text actually says. If the title overstates the case, it will mislead your followers, which ultimately defeats the point of sharing information.
- CONFIRM ANYTHING QUESTIONABLE WITH OTHER REPUTABLE, LOCAL SOURCES. If something looks like it may be too good (or too bad) to be true, or if it somehow just doesn’t seem quite right – think twice before forwarding it to others. While it won’t always prevent all such issues, trying to read three reasonably reputable sources – ideally from sources located within the country in question – that tell roughly the same story can help to minimize the chances of sharing misleading information. Even after that, if something seems like it may be “off,” either do not post it, or at least highlight your concern early on in the text of your post.