Pubdate: Tue, 29 Feb 2000
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2000 The Dallas Morning News
Contact:  P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265
Fax: (972) 263-0456


WASHINGTON - About a decade ago, when the use of crack cocaine was
rampant in many cities, doctors and nurses at a hospital in
Charleston, S.C., agonized over what to do about pregnant women who
showed signs of using illegal drugs.

The health-care workers at the Medical University of South Carolina, a
public hospital that served many people from poor and minority
neighborhoods, decided in 1989 to do everything they could to stop the
women from hurting their fetuses, perhaps irreparably.

So if a urine test indicated cocaine use, the woman was arrested and
charged with giving the drug to a minor - the child she was carrying.
The policy was modified to give drug-using women a choice between
arrest and compulsory treatment to shake their addiction.

The crack epidemic has faded and the Charleston hospital has
discontinued its policy, but a basic issue has not gone away.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether hospitals
can legally test pregnant patients for drug use and tell the police
about those who test positive. A ruling in the case, Ferguson vs. City
of Charleston, is expected next year.

The case's journey to the Supreme Court began in 1993, when 10 women
sued the hospital, arguing that the urine testing - without warrants -
violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches.

A federal District Court jury decided against the women, and last year
the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, upheld the verdict.

The appeals court reasoned that the searches were minimally intrusive
and reasonable under a "special needs" exception to the Fourth
Amendment created by the danger to fetuses as well as the loss of
public money because of crack use.

The Supreme Court has declined before to review such prosecutions,
which have been undertaken in at least 30 states against women
suspected of using drugs or, in some cases, alcohol during pregnancy.

State high courts in Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin
have disallowed them, usually on the basis that a fetus was not a
person under the particular criminal statute at hand. In so ruling,
the state courts sidestepped more fundamental constitutional issues.

But in the fall of 1997, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled, 3-2,
that such prosecutions were allowed and that a fetus was a person
under the state's child-abuse laws.

So now the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a policy that a hospital
discontinued several years ago. And given the unpredictable course of
drug addiction in the United States, no one can say whether the issue
is purely academic.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek Rea