Supreme Court Rules No Secret Drug Tests of Pregnant Women
WebMD News Archive
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
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
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
"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
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
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.