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British Police are Using Period Tracker Data and Blood Tests To Investigate Patients Who Miscarry

Police in the United Kingdom are using data from period tracking apps and mass spectrometry tests conducted on blood, placenta, and urine to investigate patients who have had “unexplained” miscarriages.

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Though abortion is legal in the UK, there are TRAP laws in place requiring certain conditions to be met first, paramount of which is that two separate doctors need to agree that the patient meets the criteria of the 1967 Abortion Act before any treatment can go ahead. Self-managed abortion is a criminal offense with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in the UK, as is any abortion performed after the pregnancy has progressed passed 23 weeks and six days, unless the patient is at risk of serious physical harm or death, or the fetus has severe developmental anomalies.

Recently, a British woman was sentenced to 28 months in prison for inducing a self-managed abortion when she was past that legal limit. Her prosecution and sentencing have been a cause of alarm for women’s rights and reproductive freedom advocates, healthcare workers, and pro-choice politicians in the UK, who say that in addition to serving no public good, it will contribute significantly to the stigma and fear surrounding abortion access in the UK, discouraging other patients who are under the legal limit from seeking the healthcare they need and are entitled to.

This fear is not unfounded given the culture of surveillance and harassment of patients who have undergone an “unexplained miscarriage” or suffered certain pregnancy complications in the UK at the hands of the police.

Though prosecution and conviction for illegal abortion-related offenses are almost vanishingly rare, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pregnant people and people who have experienced miscarriages or certain pregnancy complications being subjected to criminal investigation by the police. An already potentially stressful and even painful time—during which patients are at risk of experiencing feelings of loneliness, vulnerability, and shame due to the stigma that still surrounds miscarriage—is being exacerbated by police seizing computers and phones, demanding blood, urine, and placental samples for testing.

Describing the seizure and search of patients’ electronic devices as “chilling and deeply intrusive,” Dr. Jonathan Lord, co-chair of the British Society of Abortion Care Providers and an NHS consultant gynecologist has spoken up against these investigations, telling Tortoise Media:

“We already know that police routinely remove phones and computers from women suspected of having an [illegal] abortion and it’s even happening following miscarriage and pregnancy loss. This is damaging enough as it leaves women frightened and isolated immediately after suffering a substantial trauma.” 

Given that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, and the vast majority of them are unexplained, this rise in investigations of and the treatment of unexplained miscarriage as suspicious is deeply concerning, both in its implications for the continued bodily autonomy of AFAB people and for reproductive rights as a whole.

We’ve seen this play out in the United States, where surveillance of pregnant people and restrictive abortion laws have been used to jail people for miscarriages. Most recently, vital medications have been denied to AFAB patients on the basis that (the presumed) possession of a uterus means they could potentially be pregnant.

So far this year alone 5 women have been charged with abortion-related offenses in the U.K., compared to the three total across the previous 160 years, and this number is likely to go up, guilty or not, if the police continue this legal harassment of patients who’ve miscarried. Current police guidelines do not require the police to take biological samples in the case of unexplained miscarriage, and state instead that it is a matter of the investigating officers’ discretion; in which case we must ask, why are so many choosing to go this route, and why are so many more miscarriages being subjected to unfounded investigations in the first place? We have no answers as yet but taken with the British police’s treatment of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, and the overall misogyny, rates of domestic violence and rape either perpetrated or tacitly supported by members of the police force and a fairly bleak picture begins to emerge.

It’s important to note as well that the blood, urine, and placental tests can’t actually prove the patient didn’t induce a medication abortion. The tests will only catch use of the relevant drugs within a certain timespan, so while they can be used to convict they cannot be held up as evidence by the patient that they did not take drugs in order to purposely end their pregnancy. Just giving consent to the medical testing will not be enough to end the ordeal for patients under investigation, however refusal of consent may be taken as an indication of guilt, prolonging the investigation—and the ordeal—for the patient.

While these tests aren’t yet being used in the United States, it seems likely that it’s only a matter of time before they’re adopted over there too. They are already in use in Poland, where a similar judicial harassment campaign is underway. (Poland outlawed abortion almost completely in 2020, technically permitting it in cases of threat to the life or health of the pregnant person, rape, or incest, but in practice allowing patients to die instead.)

The fear of prosecution and harassment at the hands of police may also lead to patients experiencing or who suspect they are experiencing a miscarriage from delaying or avoiding medical care, leading to pregnancy loss that could have been avoided and serious health complications or even death for the pregnant patient, if the police are allowed to continue this behavior. Activists are clear that the only solution to this and other negative outcomes that result from the UK’s current abortion laws is to repeal the 1861 law criminalizing abortion and instead regulate it like any other medical procedure.

As Dr. Jonathan Lord told Tortoise Media, “It can never be in the public interest to subject a woman to criminal investigation following a pregnancy loss. They ought to expect compassion and sympathy. Not only are these investigations desperately cruel but they’re also an enormous waste of police resources.”

Menstrual tracker app Clue has announced that it would not comply with any request from any police force to turn over any user’s data after the overturn of Roe vs Wade, and several other apps responded by anonymizing all user data or implementing end to end data encryption so they would have nothing useful to turn over to police. However, when the police can seize your phone itself the safest option still appears to be to just not use one, and not to record your cycle anywhere that can be accessed with a search warrant.

(featured image: uzenzen/Getty Images)

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Siobhan Ball
Siobhan Ball (she/her) is a contributing writer covering news, queer stuff, politics and Star Wars. A former historian and archivist, she made her first forays into journalism by writing a number of queer history articles c. 2016 and things spiralled from there. When she's not working she's still writing, with several novels and a book on Irish myth on the go, as well as developing her skills as a jeweller.