In Victory for Privacy, Supreme Court Rejects State's Drug Testing of Pregnant Women
Wednesday, March 21, 2001
WASHINGTON--The American Civil Liberties Union hailed today's 6-3 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court holding that pregnant women cannot be subject to warrantless, suspicionless searches simply because they are pregnant.
At issue in the case, Ferguson v. City of Charleston, is a South Carolina public hospital's policy that subjected pregnant women to surreptitious drug screens of their urine, the results of which were turned over to law enforcement authorities. Under the program, 30 women were arrested; 29 were African American.
"We are gratified that the Court recognized that pregnant women have as great a right to privacy, bodily integrity, and autonomy as other free adults," said Catherine Weiss, Director of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "As today's decision underscores, women do not become wards of the state or forfeit their constitutional rights when they become pregnant."
In the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens dismissed the state's argument that drug testing pregnant women falls under the "special needs" exception of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Furthermore, the Court insisted on the importance of confidentiality in the medical context, noting that "[T]he reasonable expectation of privacy enjoyed by the typical patient undergoing diagnostic tests in a hospital is that the results of those tests will not be shared with nonmedical personnel without her consent." Accordingly, the Court's opinion will shape the growing debate about the need to protect medical information in general in this country.
"Today's decision is especially important to low-income women who disproportionately use public hospitals where the risk of collaboration with law enforcement is greatest," said Julie Sternberg, an attorney with the Reproductive Freedom Project and author of the ACLU's legal brief in the case. "Intertwining medical care with law enforcement not only violates pregnant women's constitutional rights and the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship, it also deters them from seeking prenatal care."
The ACLU said that today's decision sends a clear message that even a conservative Court is not willing to allow the serious erosion of our basic constitutional rights in the name of the war on drugs. Last November, the same 6-3 majority of the Court found unconstitutional the Indiana state police's practice of using roadblocks with drug-sniffing dogs.
The case is Ferguson v. City of Charleston, No. 99-936.
Today's Supreme Court decision can be found at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-936.ZS.html.
The ACLU's friend-of-the-court brief is online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/ferguson_v_charleston.html.
An ACLU backgrounder on the social and legal contexts in the case is online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/ferguson_00.html.