Supreme Court Overturns Drug Testing of Pregnant Women

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a South Carolina program that administered drug tests to pregnant women without their knowledge or consent was unconstitutional. In the 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court said hospitals who wanted to test women for the presence of cocaine need to get either a warrant or consent from the patient to do so.

South Carolina had argued the testing program was part of a legitimate need to get drug addicts into treatment programs, but the majority opinion rejected that argument,

Here, the policy’s central and indispensable feature from its inception was the use of law enforcement to coerce patients into substance abuse treatment. Respondents’ assertion that their ultimate purpose — namely, protecting the health of both mother and child — is a beneficent one is unavailing. While the ultimate goal of the program may well have been to get the women in question into substance abuse treatment and off drugs, the immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach that goal.

As a result the majority opinion holds that, “A state hospital’s performance of a diagnostic test to obtain evidence of a patient’s criminal conduct for law enforcement purposes is an unreasonable search if the patient has not consented to the procedure.”

The case now goes back to a lower court where South Carolina is expected to argue that the women did, in fact, consent to the drug tests which in turn might spawn another Supreme Court case.


US drugs testing ruled unconstitutional. The BBC, March 21, 2001.

Court: Consent needed to drug-test pregnant women. The Associated Press, March 21, 2001.

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