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Menstrual Cycle Apps: The Benefits and Drawbacks in These Strange Times

So many different mobile device apps are available these days, including health apps, including many for tracking your menstrual cycles, ovulation, your period, and pregnancy. Like anything, such apps have potential advantages and disadvantages, but today we’re going to discuss to major ones, one benefit and one drawback, the latter if you’re in a US state that has antiabortion laws coming into effect. We’re having this discussion in light of the Dobbs versus Jackson Womens Health Organization abortion case of June 24, 2022. But we’re also having the discussion in light of a discussion that we had earlier this year, surrounding misconceptions about the effects of COVID-19 vaccination on the menstrual cycle and on fertility —misconceptions that have been promoted and spread, particularly by a highly visible medical researcher, Dr. Robert Malone, who became an admired figure among anti-vaxxers after he appeared on the The Joe Rogan Experience in December 2021.

During the three hour interview, Malone and Rogan discussed a variety of topics in connection with Dr. Malone’s objections particularly of the mRNA vaccines, meaning the COVID-19 vaccines of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. One of the highlights came when Malone started talking about the timing of, and changes to menstrual periods of women following jabs of mRNA vaccines. This is a topic that was discussed in The Pulse around the time of the Rogan-Malone interview, just as data from a few studies were becoming available in preprint manuscripts (not yet reviewed by experts), while other studies were in the process of getting published. In speaking with Rogan, Malone asserted that influential entities, such as government agencies and big pharma were denying any effects of vaccine jabs on reproductive physiology. But, actually, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), months earlier, had announced the availability of millions of dollars in government grant money to study the issue. And guess how many of the researchers and institutions taking notice of the NIH announcement were already well into the process of using such funding for investigate COVID-19 mRNA vaccines and the female reproductive cycle. By utilizing data available from menstruation apps.

Women around the planet had been using such apps on their phones and other mobile devices for various reasons, such as knowing when they’d likely ovulate in order to get pregnant, as part of tracking their overall health, for reasons related to athletic training, and perhaps some also to help them avoid pregnancy (although, this is not recommended as an alternative to contraception). Those menstruation app data were available to researcher, including those working on the vaccine issue that NIH was funding, such as a group based at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).

Built into Malone’s discussion with Rogan was an idea that any change involving the reproductive system, such as a change in menstruation related to the vaccines could be a sign of some kind of negative effect on fertility. But rather than noting the various NIH-funded research projects, Malone described very non-scientific, anecdotal accounts of menstrual disruption, about which he had heard from ultra-orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn. He took time explaining why such Jewish communities routinely monitor menstrual cycles of the married women, but was unable to speak with the precision of a scientific study, because it was not a scientific study at all.

Meanwhile, one of those NIH-funded scientific studies, the one from OHSU, would publish in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology just a few weeks after Malone’s appearance with Rogan. By analyzing information regarding the timing and characteristics of menstruation, on vaccine doses, and on other factors from nearly 4,000 women reporting through a phone tracking app,

the study found that actually yes, getting a vaccine jab can affect the length of your menstrual cycles, but only by a tiny bit. We are talking hours to up to a day out of the month. For women who received two vaccine doses during the same cycle, the timing of their periods could change by up to two days. Some women experienced some heavier than normal bleeding (an observation that Malone mentioned from other sources), but everything went back to normal (the amount of bleeding and the lengths of cycles) within two cycles. Because the immune system influences sex hormone physiology, these temporary changes following a vaccine jab should not be a problem any more than slight menstrual changes due to various medications. Regarding fertility, a study, also based on data from menstruation apps, has been published by a group at the Boston University School of Public Health. This study looked at effects of COVID-19 vaccine jabs, SARS-CoV2 infection, and COVID-19, on more than 2,000 Canadian and US couples trying to conceive. The researchers found that vaccination did not interfere with fertility. However, infection with SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) was shown to caused a temporary drop in fertility in males who were infected.

All of this shows that by using a menstrual cycle app, you really can contribute greatly to science. But there is a flip-side, for those living in an US state that restricts abortion rights and is trying to restrict the freedom to choose further, on account of leeway that anti-abortion politicians in such states believe that they have on account of the Dobbs case decision in the SCOTUS.

The Dobbs case involved a Mississippi law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks gestation. Along with upholding the Mississippi law with 6 justices for and 3 against, the Dobbs decision also overturned the Roe versus Wade decision of 1973, 5-4. Written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, the Dobbs decision reverses Roe v Wade by taking issue with what is known as substantive due process, a mechanism through which Roe v Wade applied the 14th Amendment to protect abortion as a privacy right.

Women in antiabortion states already have begun traveling to other states to receive abortion services (this actually was happening long prior to Dobbs, on account of abortion rights being chiseled away in the half century that followed Roe v Wade). The state of Texas passed an antiabortion law that would allow bounties paid to anyone who tips off authorities regarding abortion recipients and those who have helped them, which potentially could lead to a vigilante situation. Additionally, antiabortion legislators in some states have expressed desire to pass measures that would enable prosecution of people who travel to other states to obtain abortions, or who help others who travel. Consequently, pro-choice organizations have begun warning those who either are seeking abortions and those helping such women, to avoid using any kind of phone app that state authorities might use against them. This includes menstruation apps on which women may report something as innocent as a late period, which, in this crazy environment, might be used against a women, even if she has not received an abortion.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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