Ben Smarr published a new study in early May showing that the Oura slim ring can detect pregnancy before most people take a test. It was an exciting finding – earlier detection of pregnancy based on portable devices could, he wrote in the newspaper, “increase the agency of pregnant individuals.”
Smarr, a data scientist at the University of California, San Diego, conducts research on portable devices and health – including reproductive health. He is working with Oura on other projects around pregnancy. His team is also looking into whether data from devices can detect miscarriages.
Reproductive health in general – and its intersection with wearables in particular – is an often underdeveloped area of research. The applications were exciting. But the work took on a new dimension in June when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Now that there is no more federal protection for abortion – and some states will prosecute people for seeking reproductive health care – Smarr and his team are taking a step back. In the new political landscape, they are reconsidering the best approach to their research.
“Are we building systems that will be used to hurt women instead of helping them? It’s quite cool, ”says Smarr.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, an avalanche of resources investigated the ways in which portable devices such as smartwatches and smartwatches can detect various changes in the body. Several researchers, including Smarr, have begun looking at whether the devices can detect early signs of COVID-19. However, this was difficult because many of the signs of the disease were non-specific – teams struggled to figure out how to distinguish COVID-19 from other diseases.
Things like pregnancy and changes in pregnancy may be easier to bother with, says Jessilyn Dunn, a digital health researcher and assistant professor at Duke University. “Nuclear body temperature is very accurate in terms of detecting ovulation and that kind of thing,” she says. “I think there are a lot of promises here.”
Although there is promise, research is still in its early stages. Smarr’s pregnancy detection study, conducted in partnership with Oura, was only an early look to see if that kind of detection would even be possible. And normally, says Smarr, he would try to move as fast as possible. “In part, it’s selfish – you’re building a career,” he says. “But you move fast because you want to make a positive difference.”
Now, under the new reproductive health and political landscape, he wonders if and how things might have to slow down. His team began discussions about what their work could be used for. Early pregnancy detection can in theory be helpful for people in places where there are restrictions on how far into pregnancy someone can be and still get an abortion. But it also means that there will be clear data showing that someone was pregnant, which can be used against them when that pregnancy ends.
The research on miscarriage detection is even more worrying. “We’re probably the closest to building exactly the tool you do not want to give to the bad guys,” says Smarr.
Digital health researchers should always think about the context in which their work may be used, Dunn says. “I think anything that criminalizes anything related to health care is dangerous,” she says. “And that makes it difficult as researchers to understand what our role is and should be in this space.”
Smarr says his team is still trying to sort out their approach going forward. He also reached out to his colleagues at Oura. Tom Hale, CEO of Oura, in a statement to The Edge that the company add additional security measures to data and prepare adjustments to its privacy policies.
But no matter where the research teams land, other factors can delay research in this space. Digital health studies tend to have more participation from women than men, Dunn says. But the end of Roe v. Wade could have a cooling effect on how willing people are to share their data with research teams about concerns that it may one day be used against them, Smarr says. And that alone can stop what these teams are capable of achieving.
“I think we can expect it to have a pretty serious negative impact on the pace at which we are able to do research,” he says. “We are so bad with women’s health. We are already so far behind. And the idea that you can use fear to keep people ignorant – that’s such a bleak vision for society. ”