Supreme Court Rules Drug Tests Illegal on Pregnant Women
In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that hospitals cannot test pregnant women for illegal drug use without their consent and give the results to police, the AP/Columbia State reports. Ferguson v. City of Charleston was filed in 1993 on behalf of ten pregnant women who said that the Medical University of South Carolina, a public hospital in Charleston, violated their Fourth Amendment rights by turning their drug tests over to the police. Some women testing positive for illegal drugs were arrested in the hospital and taken into custody under the state's child-endangerment law. The justices ruled that the tests were subject to the Fourth Amendment, which requires that searches be authorized by a warrant or be based on a "reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed." Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority decision, was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas. The hospital began the program in 1989 in an effort to reduce crack cocaine use. Under the original provisions, any woman whose urine tested positive for cocaine was referred to the police and arrested for distributing drugs to a minor. The program was amended in 1990 to give women a choice between jail or enrolling in substance abuse treatment (Asseo, AP/Columbia State, 3/22).
The AMA joined over 70 other organizations in filing briefs in support of the plaintiffs, saying that "threatening the women with arrest and jail time deters them from seeking care." Dr. Timothy Flaherty, chair-elect of the association's Board of Trustees, said, "The concern we had was the preservation of the patient-physician relationship and the chilling effect it might have on women seeking prenatal care" (Winiarski, Columbia State, 3/22). Priscilla Smith, a lawyer from the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy who represented the women, said the decision confirms that "pregnant women have the same constitutional rights as other Americans, including the right to maintain a confidential doctor-patient relationship" (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 3/22). South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon (R), the Charleston prosecutor at the time the drug-testing policy was implemented, said, "The bottom line is this: There is no right of a mother to jeopardize the health and safety of an unborn child through her own drug use" (Murray, Washington Times, 3/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.