Police 'drug testing women' to see if they've had an abortion

a person sitting in front of a window
Women 'forced to drug test' after miscarriageFarknot_Architect - Getty Images

Some women who have experienced pregnancy loss are being subjected to drug testing to see if they've taken pills that would induce an abortion, a new report says. The number of cases is currently thought to only be a 'handful', but the news is still concerning.

Investigative news outlet Tortoise have highlighted the findings in a new article, and alleges to have seen "forensic reports in which police have requested a mass spectrometry test, which can detect the presence of the abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol in the urine, blood and placenta of women under investigation".

The new report also alleges that British police forces are asking female health apps (such as those used to track periods and ovulation) to share data whilst investigating women they believe have unlawfully induced a miscarriage, or baby loss.

It's believed concerns that a woman may have terminated a pregnancy outside of the legal timeframe are being raised by neighbours, who have noticed that someone isn't pregnant anymore, or partners. Medical staff are also said to be reporting suspected illegal abortions, out of fear they'll be in trouble themselves if they remain silent.

The women who undergo this sort of drug testing must give consent beforehand (and should be told that the blood tests are part of a criminal investigation, rather than for medical reasons), however one expert, Dr Sally Sheldon, law professor at Bristol University, said "given the nature of these cases, there are grounds for concern regarding whether [the] consent was truly valid and informed."

a box of pills and a glass of water
Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

No specific numbers have been shared demonstrating how large-scale the problem of women being placed under criminal investigation following a miscarriage or baby loss is, but there is thought to be at least "a handful" of known cases over the last few years. If suspicions are reported then it is down to the lead investigating officer to decide which lines of enquiry to follow, and whether or not that includes seizing a woman's phone, requesting data, or asking that she undergo a blood test.

Tortoise also writes that this type of police proceeding has been going on for (at least) three years and that "other reports include requests for 'data related to menstruation tracking applications' as part of the police's investigations". Tortoise does not state the number of forensic reports it has seen.

"Reports of UK police using data related to menstruation tracking applications in investigations against women who have had unexplained pregnancy loss is chilling," Sarah Simms, a Policy Officer at Privacy International (a charity focussed on the intersection of modern technologies and rights), tells Cosmopolitan UK.

"Across the world, we are seeing law enforcement use new and sophisticated ways to surveil, using technology and data against those in situations where access to safe abortion is criminalised or restricted, threatening individuals' right to reproductive healthcare."

Concerns about reproductive rights in America exploded after Roe v Wade was overturned "however, these reports coming from the UK indicate this is no longer an issue confined to the US," Simms continues. "The right to privacy is vital. We need to ensure it is upheld when accessing reproductive healthcare, especially when this is enabled with new technologies."

Commenting further on the shocking revelation that women are having their data used in this way Sarah Salkeld, Associate Clinical Director at MSI Reproductive Choices UK, told Cosmopolitan UK: "As a healthcare provider, we know how vital confidentiality and trust are, especially when it comes to stigmatised areas of health like abortion. We want everyone who needs medical care to come forward as early as possible so we can offer all the support they need. But if people are afraid that their privacy could be violated there is a risk that women may not feel safe disclosing their circumstances.

"Our abortion laws must be modernised, and pregnancy loss managed as a healthcare issue with care and compassion, not as a potential crime."

Clare Murphy, Chief Executive at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, also described the data abuse as a "terrifying turn of events" when speaking to Cosmopolitan UK, noting that it's a problem on the rise.

"We are seeing increasing police involvement in what should be private healthcare issues between a woman and those caring for her," said Murphy. "Criminalising women in this way compromises everyone and benefits no-one; it harms women, it harms their health and their ability to confide in a healthcare professional which may well in turn harm their pregnancies. This has to end. We need the decriminalisation of abortion now."

A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said: “Unexpected pregnancy loss is not something which is routinely investigated by police as potential illegal abortion, and these are very rare. An investigation would only be initiated where there is credible information to suggest criminal activity and this would often be as a result of concerns raised from medical professionals.

“Each case would have a set of unique factors to be assessed and investigated depending on its individual circumstances. It would be at the discretion of the senior investigating officer leading the case to determine which reasonable lines of enquiry to follow, which may include toxicology or digital data – again depending on the merits of the specific case.

“It is important to stress that due to the individuality of each case, there is no standardised policy to investigate illegal abortions and that police will always work closely with health partners.”

Whilst abortion has been legal in England and Wales since 1967, under specific circumstances the procedure is still seen as a criminal act.

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