• Hannah Ferguson

As we await the fall of Roe v Wade, a dark vision of a future under 'uterus surveillance' emerges

Updated: Jun 15

The United States Supreme Court is expected to strike down the 1973 landmark Roe v Wade decision in the coming days, removing a federal right to abortion and returning the power to state jurisdictions. But what does this actually mean for people trying to access abortion services in the United States? And what is the reality of 'uterus surveillance' and the privacy implications of this decision?

There are complex legal questions to be asked, many of which we cannot comprehend the answers to until we begin seeing the practical effects. What are the impacts on health practitioners who perform surgery in medical emergencies involving pregnant people? Will states prosecute those who have sought abortions in other regions? Will laws that stand on the shoulders of Roe v Wade be subsequently challenged in the coming months? How do we measure the impacts of destroying a fifty-year old precedent? How fucking long is a piece of string?

What we do know is this: 13 states have trigger laws currently in place that would immediately ban abortion at various gestational periods. 26 states are expected to legislate full or partial bans. Texas has passed 'bounty hunter' legislation which offers at least $10,000 to those who successfully sue an abortion provider. The next threat to enter the fold is 'uterus surveillance', the ability to obtain data and privacy information to determine whether someone is attempting or has accessed an abortion service and utilise this as evidence.

Legal organisations and pro-choice advocates have warned of the ability for state law enforcement authorities to issue warrants for information like search histories, location data and health information to identify people who seek abortion care in many forms, including telehealth appointments and online orders. When we consider our digital footprint, the capacity for this information to be monitored, purchased and utilised as incriminating evidence is immeasurable.

In 2018, law enforcement in Mississippi utilised online search history to indict a woman on charges of second-degree murder following a stillbirth, she had simply searched for abortion pills. While the charges were later dropped, it raises questions: in a post-Roe world, how much further could uterus surveillance extend?

Another key concern that arises in a post-Roe world is the use of period-tracking apps. Experts warn that law enforcement may have the capacity to utilise these data points to prosecute those who have had, or are seeking out, an abortion. These services are utilised by millions, most of whom have never thought they would need to safeguard the simple act of tracking their menstrual cycle.

When we consider the possibility for right-wing organisations to purchase this personal data for the purposes of incrimination, we place a spotlight on the importance of safeguarding our sexual health information and pose questions about the onus of responsibility. Should technology companies be held to a higher standard in retaining and protecting this intimate data? Do we hand over our consent too freely, without understanding the impacts?

While legislators attempt to introduce privacy protections for those seeking abortion services, it feels like a race against the clock. It is unclear at this point how anti-choice organisations may exploit privacy legislation to identify individuals seeking out or who have had an abortion. Fear lies in the unpredictability. We will have to wait to see the practical effects, which are likely to be swift and aggressive.

One of the most frightening elements of these legal processes is the sheer inhumanity of the conversations taking place. These legislative and constitutional battles will hinge not on the protection of those seeking out health services, but on the willingness of corporations, conservative politicians and big tech to protect the privacy of users.