The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How pregnancy monitoring technology contributes to the war on women

Devices that appeal to maternal anxiety may also threaten reproductive autonomy. (iStock)

Technology plays a growing role in the ongoing “war on women,” an onslaught of laws, policies and political discourse built on the belief that children, babies and even fetuses require “protection” from pregnant women and mothers. Biometric technology in particular, which uses biological information to track, monitor and collect data, has potentially punitive and far-reaching potential to enhance the surveillance of women’s reproduction. Enter the Owlet Band, the “world’s first consumer pregnancy monitor” coming in late 2019, which offers surveillance in sleek consumer packaging. Owlet was founded in 2013 by four male graduates of Brigham Young University and has already made its mark in the field of “infant wearables” with a Smart Sock device that tracks babies’ vital signs while they sleep. The Owlet Band promises the next step in monitoring by introducing the process before birth. It does so with a stretchy, form-fitting material that encircles a pregnant woman’s midsection in a net of sensors that track the movements of her growing fetus.

The Owlet Band threatens to naturalize the tracking and surveillance of pregnancy by appealing to maternal anxiety, a seemingly innocuous practice that could further restrict the already imperiled reproductive autonomy of women. Owlet contends that the Band will offer women “peace of mind” during their pregnancies. In a culture that valorizes personal responsibility for health and normalizes the use of technology for self-tracking, that arguably feels reasonable enough. Indeed, many potential users of the Band are probably already monitoring their heart rates, daily step counts and their fertility data to optimize their daily lives. Pregnancy, however, adds an important twist to everyday forms of “dataveillance” — the Owlet Band monitors a condition that is already intensively surveilled, made public and potentially criminalized. Owlet’s release in the consumer market occurs alongside widespread material and ideological restrictions to women’s reproductive autonomy across the country, and it must be understood within this context.

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Owlet’s marketing relies heavily on the idea that pregnancy is an uncertain, worrisome and dangerous time. One marketing video features an anxious-looking pregnant white woman sitting in a rocking chair at night, caressing her stomach while a voice-over lists the ways parents can use technology to protect children after birth. It then asks, “What about your unborn child?” The company contends that parents worry about their “unborn babies” in between doctor’s visits, describing this as “one of the most painful times of life.” The supposed solution? The band, which uses webs of electrode sensors that gather thousands of samples per second to track a baby’s kicks, heart rate, maternal sleep positions and the mother’s uterine contractions, sending this data to a smartphone app.

This ramped-up monitoring is necessary, according to one of the Owlet founders, who opines that the data that happens before a baby is born is “kind of a dark room right now. And we’re shining a light into that room.” This rhetoric reinforces the long-standing view of women’s bodies as obscure, mysterious and potentially dangerous barriers to medical knowledge. Ultrasound bypasses women’s bodies, ostensibly allowing medical professionals nearly unfettered access to the “truth” of the fetus without relying on women’s embodied experiences of their own pregnancies. In the process, the same technology repositioned the fetus as the true patient of obstetric medicine, sidelining mothers as environments or vessels to be managed. Ultrasound allowed Americans to become more familiar with images of the fetus, whether through popular media, advertising or antiabortion activism. This has contributed to what is termed “fetal personhood,” the belief that a fetus is a distinct and separable individual from the pregnant woman beginning at conception and thus deserving of full citizenship rights. This ideology has proven dangerous for women’s reproductive autonomy because it positions the fetus and the pregnant woman as equal rights-bearers, but with potentially conflicting agendas.

Though they may do so unintentionally, the makers of the Owlet Band reinforce fetal personhood using the language of technology and data: With the Owlet Band, what is opaque becomes transparent as a steady stream of data is produced for the user — and whoever else may have access to it. The video ends with a happy, band-wearing mother smiling at her stomach, and the voice-over says: “Say goodbye to the gap between mom and baby. Say hello to the Owlet Band.” This statement suggests that without the data provided by the Owlet Band, mothers are forsaking — even ignoring — critical information about their child-to-be, as well as the opportunity to connect with their “unborn child.” As the “unborn child” rhetoric suggests, the production of data about the fetus also serves to differentiate its personhood from that of the pregnant woman and the necessity of a third party (in this case, Owlet’s technology) to mediate between the two.

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While Owlet frames this device as another way for parents to ensure “peace of mind,” such technology also raises disturbing possibilities in a political moment when women are being held criminally liable for miscarriage, abortion and stillbirth. Antiabortion activism has contributed to the passage of fetal homicide laws by the federal government and 38 states, which grant personhood to the fetus as a crime victim separate from the mother. Such legislation was used as recently as June, when Marshae Jones, a black Alabama woman, was charged with the manslaughter of her fetus after she was shot in the stomach by another woman. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, police initially said Jones instigated the dispute that led to the shooting and was therefore culpable. A study by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women documented 413 cases between 1973 (marking the passage of Roe v. Wade) and 2005 in which pregnant women were detained or their autonomy was severely limited by authorities, including arrests, forced medical intervention and forced detentions in hospitals. Unsurprisingly, low-income women and women of color are disproportionately targeted in cases such as these.

How might the normalization of even voluntary biometric pregnancy monitoring be part of a continuum of restricted reproductive freedoms for women? For one, technology — or the failure to use it — has already served as evidence in criminal cases against mothers accused of harming their children. For example, in 2011 a Pennsylvania woman was charged with involuntary manslaughter, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person after her 5-month-old daughter died in her sleep. The parents had been instructed to use a breathing monitor on the infant because they previously lost a 27-day-old son, presumably to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). (Breathing monitors have been roundly criticized as an ineffective tool in reducing rates of SIDS, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that the efficacy of breathing monitors for siblings of SIDS babies is unproven. There is no evidence to suggest the use of the monitor would have had any impact on the baby’s survival.) The involuntary manslaughter charges were later dropped, and the mother was placed in a probation program for first-time offenders. However, her decision not to use the prescribed technology was still interpreted as indicative of her guilt. When a local news channel posted about the case on Facebook, the comments included notes of sympathy and understanding, but also posts calling the mother a baby killer and saying she should be put on death row or be hung, with several mentioning that she had not used the prescribed monitor.

This is not to say such technologies are inherently harmful to women. On the contrary, many women embrace them and benefit from them, and will probably line up to purchase the Owlet Band. Nevertheless, products like it reflect our interwoven systems of consumerism, law, policy and political attitudes, which place intensive pressure on individual women to single-handedly ensure fetal and child health while also assuming that poor, young, disabled, immigrant and nonwhite pregnant women and mothers require intensive surveillance and policing. Wearable monitors like the Owlet Band do not create these conditions, but they are symptoms of the problem. If the war on women is both material and ideological, a consumer product that encourages women to become more trackable, more docile, more transparent, is an important weapon indeed.