Privacy for pregnant women

Supreme Court: Clear majority rules against hospital's policy that turned over drug tests to police.

March 24, 2001

MORE THAN distasteful, a South Carolina hospital's policy of drug testing pregnant women and then -- without the women's consent -- sending results to police was unconstitutional.

So said the Supreme Court this week, mounting an important victory for privacy protections.

The Medical University of South Carolina had contended that the ultimate goal of its policy was to reduce drug use among pregnant women amid a rising number of "crack-babies."

Maybe a good intention, but so what. By not informing the women that the test results would be forwarded to police, the hospital trampled all over the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that police sometimes have "special needs" to intrude upon privacy. Gunshot victims are reported to police, for example. Sobriety checkpoints have passed court scrutiny.

But never has the court approved warrantless, nonconsensual searches of pregnant women receiving medical treatment when the specific purpose of the search is to obtain criminal evidence.

The size of the majority in this 6-3 opinion was important, too. The only dissenters were Chief Justice William Rehnquist and associate justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

More and more, the court's opinions are showing these three to be a loopy, far-right minority, rather than the core of a conservative majority. The trio dissented in November when the court struck down police roadblocks to snoop for drug possession. And they were the naysayers last June when the court barred student-led prayers before high school football games.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, who sometimes vote with the most conservative members, showed proper consideration for privacy rights in the South Carolina case -- and kept illegal searches out of the maternity ward.

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