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Supreme Court Rules No Secret Drug Tests of Pregnant Women

WebMD Health News

March 21, 2001 -- In a decision that has been anticipated since last October, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that hospitals cannot secretly test pregnant women for drugs and inform police of the results.


The case stems from a procedure of testing expectant mothers for use of crack cocaine at the hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina.


The justices ruled 6-3 that although the practice may be an attempt to protect the fetus, such tests cannot be performed on the mother without first obtaining a search warrant or consent.


Under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, people are protected against unreasonable searches; generally, there first must be a warrant issued by a court, or law enforcement has reasonable suspicion a crime has happened.


The high court has permitted drug testing to be conducted if there are 'special needs,' however, such as with students in public high schools or on railroad workers after an accident has happened. But the new ruling means that pregnant women do not fall into the special need category.


"While the ultimate goal of the program may well have been to get the women in question into substance abuse treatment and off of drugs, the immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach that goal," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the high court.


In his statement, Stevens added that hospitals still have "a special obligation" to be certain that patients are fully informed of their constitutional rights when the hospitals gather evidence in order to incriminate patients.


The three justices dissenting from the ruling were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. In Scalia's statement for the three, he said that doctors need to be thinking about the welfare of both the mother and child, and it should not make a difference if the doctors also are thinking about gathering evidence.


The case was based on events spanning more than a decade, when Lori Griffin was sent to jail for distributing cocaine to a minor -- her unborn baby.


In October, Griffin and nine other women presented their case before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing their constitutional rights were violated because a controversial program at a public South Carolina hospital allowed pregnant women to be tested for cocaine without their permission.


Some 75 medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, joined in support of the 10 women plaintiffs who fought the policy that was put into effect in 1989. According to that policy, doctors at this public hospital could decide whether a drug test was in order by looking at, for instance, whether the woman had a history of cocaine use.


If the results were positive, the women were given the choice of forced drug treatment or jail.

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