In early May, Ben Smarr issued a new study showing that the Oura brilliant ring can notice reproductive health & find pregnancy before most people take a test.
It was a thrilling finding — earlier detection of pregnancy based on wearable devices could he wrote in the paper, “expand the agency of pregnant women.”
Smarr, an information scientist at the University of California, San Diego, researches wearable devices and reproductive health. He’s functioning with Oura on other tasks around pregnancy. His crew is also looking to see if device data can see miscarriages.
Reproductive health in widespread aspect — and its junction with wearables in particular — is an often underexplored area of research. The applications were compelling. But the work took on a new measurement in June when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
There are no longer nationwide protections for abortion — and some states will prosecute people for pursuing reproductive healthcare — Smarr and his team are taking a step back. They’re reconsidering the best strategy for their research in the new political landscape.
“Are we building systems that will be used to hurt women instead of helping them? That’s pretty chilling,” Smarr states.
At the commencement of the COVID-19 pandemic, a flood of resources researched how wearable devices like smartwatches and intelligent rings can detect changes in the body. Researchers, including Smarr, started glancing to see if the devices could detect earlier signs of COVID-19. It was challenging, though, because many of the symptoms of the illness were nonspecific — teams struggled to extrapolate out how to distinguish COVID-19 from other diseases.
Things like pregnancy and shifts in pregnancy might be more comfortable to tease out, says Jessilyn Dunn, a digital health researcher and assistant lecturer at Duke University. “Core body temperature is accurate in noticing ovulation and those sorts of fortes,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of guarantees here.”
While there is a promise, research is still in its early stages. For example, Smarr’s pregnancy detection study, done in collaboration with Oura, was only an early look to notice if that kind of detection would even be feasible. And usually, Smarr says, he’d be trying to move as quickly as possible. “In part, it’s selfish — you’re constructing a career,” he says. “But you’re moving quickly because you want to create a positive difference.”
Now, under the latest reproductive health and political landscape, he’s wondering if and how things might require to slow down. His team has started speaking about what their work might be used for. Early pregnancy detection could, in theory, be valuable for people in locations where there are limits on how far ahead in pregnancy someone can be and still acquire an abortion. But it also means there’d be precise data showing that someone was pregnant, which could be used against them if that pregnancy terminates.
The analysis of miscarriage detection is even more concerning. “We’re probably the closest to building exactly the tool you wouldn’t like to give the bad guys,” Smarr says.
Digital health researchers should consistently be thinking about the context that their job could be used, Dunn says. “I think anything that criminalizes something related to healthcare is difficult,” she says. “And it makes it hard as researchers to understand what the function is and should be in this space.”
Smarr says his team is still attempting to sort out their approach in the future. He’s arrived out to his colleagues at Oura as well. Oura CEO Tom Hale said in a statement that the company is counting additional safeguards to data and preparing adjustments to its privacy policies.
But, no matter where the research teams land, other factors could slow the breakdown in this space. For example, Dunn says that digital health studies tend to have more participation from women than men. But the end of Roe v. Wade could have a chilling effect on how willing people are to share their data with research teams over concerns it could be used against them one day, Smarr says. And that alone could stymie what these teams can accomplish.
“I think we can expect that this will have a pretty serious negative impact on the rate at which we’re able to do research,” he says. “We are so bad at women’s health. We’re already so far behind. And the idea that you can use fear to keep people ignorant — it’s such a bleak vision for society.”