Fertility tracking: women’s lib?

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 10.34.49 amA recent article in The Guardian profiled the rise of fertility tracking software and devices. It left me uncomfortably attempting to reconcile the obvious benefits with what are likely to be the costs of such technologies.

For some time, apps have been available as a means to record your menstrual cycle. The one I use, Period Tracker, allows you not only to input the date of your period, but to record a variety of symptoms (bloating, headache, night sweats) and moods (‘flirty’, anxious, sad), and even when a woman is sexually active. The app calculates your likely cycle, which for those who menstruate other than on a 28 day cycle, is very handy. The deluxe version, I believe, can be shared with your partner to identify your window of fertility.

Fertility trackers are an updated version of this. Like Fitbit, they can be tuned into your body’s physiology and work with that data to alert you to your fertility. Some suggest that this data might also be able to predict underlying medical conditions. This has implications both personally and population wide – implications that are both potentially liberating and chilling.

Liberation

The rise of fertility apps is good news for women. For individual women, collecting information about their menstrual cycle provides them with data that might assist with managing their health as well as their fertility. For those wishing to become pregnant, and for those wanting to avoid becoming pregnant, the data is personally empowering.

It is well known that a lot of medical and pharmacological information has been derived from studies on men. Even the Apple health app omitted a period tracker, an arguably essential piece of health information for roughly 50% of the population, highlighting the gendered bias in health data collection. We need better information about women’s physiology and this is where he new tracking software is also good news for women generally.

The apps have the capacity to collect – and collate – everyone’s data. In fact, the Guardian article points out that many such apps are free to use while the developers work on selling the data to third parties. The third parties can use the population-wide data to fill the gap in medical understanding of women’s physiology. This can only assist in developing effective responses to women’s health needs.

Women’s control of their own fertility has been a crucial factor in the empowerment of women in western democracies over the past 40 or so years. In this sense, these new technologies can be considered to be personally empowering to individual women who are put in charge of understanding their own fertility. Of course women, as with all citizens, should harness new technologies to enhance their lives. There is, however, a flip side that renders women vulnerable.

Vulnerability

As with other contexts of mass data collection, we need to interrogate the downside. Are we vulnerable as individuals in having our personal data amassed? A further question with the particular context of fertility data, is: are we vulnerable as women in having our personal data amassed?

Motherhood continues to be a defining standard of womanhood, and a rationale for women’s exclusion from the public (and market) sphere. Women continue to experience discrimination in all aspects of life including within the home, because they are women. Fertility trackers have potential to entrench discrimination in at least two ways.

As Deborah Lupton points out in relation to pregnancy apps,

Women are encouraged to use apps to achieve the ideal of the self-monitoring ‘good mother’

Such apps play on stereotypes of women to reinforce gendered behaviours. It is possible that fertility trackers might do likewise.

A second risk with fertility trackers runs directly counter to the potential for liberation through information – that is, a loss of control over personal fertility information. To the extent that an individual woman loses control of that information, she is potentially inviting others to exercise some control over her.

This could be her partner, where the woman’s fertility data is shared between the two – or even where it is controlled by a woman’s partner. Women in a trusting and loving relationship can benefit from sharing this data. But where that relationship is abusive or where a good relationship breaks down, the data can be used instead as a means of control. (For an unimaginably worst case scenario involving external control over a woman’s fertility, see this article on IS sex slaves forced to take birth control.)

As with many online services, in the case of fertility tracking technology the user is the product. Because data is shared with (often unknown) third parties, a woman might unwittingly – and to her detriment – inform others of her physiological (or reproductive) status, including each time a woman is sexually active. Even without fertility trackers, retailers have sufficient customer data that they can predict pregnancy based on customer spending patterns. With access to actual physiological data, presumably firms can tailor marketing that might reveal the woman’s physical state to others.

The same might be said for insurance companies or employers who could use this data to discriminate against women who were fertile or pregnant, or who experience adverse menstrual symptoms. There are any number of scenarios where women’s fertility data – that should be empowering them to make decisions about their lives – might result in adverse consequences when in the hands of third parties.

It is possible to make these arguments about all fitness and health data that is currently collected and provided to third parties. Data uploaded from the Apple health app for example, provides an enormous trove of information to third parties. Based on this data, anyone, man or woman, might face third party predictions of their health outcomes and suffer some kind of discrimination as a consequence. And, it is important that we examine the consequences for privacy of all of these applications.

I hold additional concerns however when it comes to data about women and their fertility. As a society, we continue to discriminate against women, against pregnant women, and against mothers. Unhelpful tropes about menstruation and menopause – and perceptions of women’s diminished abilities – remain strong. We are habituated to discrimination against women, and now fertility data gives us a concrete reason to do so.

These new technologies and their application shine the light on the ongoing struggle for women of taking control of their fertility. But they also enliven the ongoing struggle for women of defining themselves beyond the tropes of motherhood.

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