Pubdate: Wed, 15 Nov 2000
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Cynthia Daniels
Bookmark: Ferguson v. City of Charleston


IMAGINE GOING to your doctor for routine medical treatment and supplying 
the typical urine sample. The doctor leaves the examination room, goes down 
the hall and, without your knowledge or consent, tests your urine for 
illicit drugs.

As you wait in your patient's gown, police enter the room, handcuff and 
shackle you, and take you off to prison on charges of drug possession.

Is it legal for you to be tested without your consent? Is it legal for your 
doctor to call the police if you test positive? Is it legal for you to 
incriminate yourself with your own blood or urine? These are the questions 
involved in the Ferguson vs. City of Charleston (S.C.) case argued last 
month before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now add to the mix the question of fetal rights. In 1989, nurses and 
physicians at a public hospital in Charleston worked with local police to 
institute a policy whereby pregnant women were tested for cocaine and, 
after one positive drug test, were arrested at the hospital. Over five 
years, the Medical University of South Carolina arrested 30 women for child 
abuse on these grounds. Some were taken to jail during their eighth month 
of pregnancy; others were arrested in their hospital gowns, still bleeding 
from childbirth.

Six months after initiating the policy, the medical university added an 
option whereby women who tested positive could enter in-patient drug 
treatment instead of going to jail. But many of the women arrested were 
never offered this option; others say they rejected it because it required 
them to leave their other children.

Ten women who were arrested sued the state of South Carolina on the grounds 
that the policy violated their Fourth Amendment protection against illegal 
search and seizure. Under the law, the government must obtain a warrant 
based on probable cause that a crime is being committed before searching 
for evidence to be used in an arrest.

The court has made only limited exceptions to this rule in "special needs" 
cases, such as in drunken driving, in which taking the time to get a 
warrant might result in imminent harm to others.

In the Ferguson case, South Carolina argued that concern over damage to 
fetal health constituted just such a special need and that a fetus was the 
third party in danger from maternal drug use. But, as Justice Ruth Bader 
Ginsburg asked the attorney for South Carolina in oral arguments, how does 
the arrest of women, some after childbirth, protect fetal health?

Seemingly in support of the policy, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that 
doctors might be legally obligated to report such evidence to the police, 
as they do in gunshot wound cases. But in this case, we're not dealing with 
something as clear-cut as bleeding wounds. Who decides which women get 
tested and which do not?

The Medical University of South Carolina targeted women with criteria as 
vague as "inadequate prenatal care." Such wide discretion opens the door to 
racial stereotyping. Given the history of prosecutions of drug-involved 
pregnant women, it is not surprising to learn that in South Carolina, 29 of 
the 30 women arrested as a result of this policy were African American.

And who decides which harmful substances to test for? At the medical 
university, women were tested and arrested only for cocaine. Many 
substances can harm fetal health, with alcohol and cigarettes in the lead. 
Both do more damage in this country than all illicit drugs combined. Why 
not arrest pregnant women who abuse alcohol and nicotine?

More than 75 medical organizations and experts, including the American 
Medical Association and the March of Dimes, oppose this policy on the 
grounds that it does nothing to protect fetal health and, at worst, drives 
women away from their health care providers.

Imagine how reluctant you would be to go back to your doctor or to share 
sensitive medical information with any health-care provider after being 
threatened with such an arrest.

If affirmed by the Supreme Court, this policy would turn doctors into 
police officers, undermining the very foundation of medical privacy rights. 
It would stretch the "special needs" exception beyond the limits of 
constitutional protection. In the name of protecting fetal health from the 
admittedly serious consequences of drug addiction, it would swallow up not 
just the rights of pregnant women, but the rights of all citizens to 
medical privacy.

Cynthia Daniels is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers 
and the author of "At Women's Expense: State Power and the Politics of 
Fetal Rights" (Harvard University Press, 1993).
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