More than 100 physicans, health care professionals and medical ethicists recently sent a letter to U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher urging him to take a stance on the policy at issue in the upcoming Supreme Court case, Ferguson v. City of Charleston. Signatories fear the outcome of the case could jeopardize the health of pregnant women and their families by turning doctors and other health care providers into agents of law enforcement.
The case concerns a 1989 policy that called for the Medical University Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina to work in collaboration with the police and prosecutor’s office to search certain pregnant women and new mothers for evidence of cocaine use. Those who tested positive were arrested — some shackled to their hospital beds and still bleeding from childbirth. The policy was carried out almost exclusively against African Americans.
Treatment, added belatedly to the policy, was administered by individuals without experience in treating pregnant women or new mothers, and without the services proven effective in such cases.
“Threat-based approaches have been shown to deter pregnant and parenting women not from using drugs, but from seeking health care,” says the letter. “In short, the Charleston policy undermines rather than advances the interest in maternal, fetal, and child health.”
Signatories were from a variety of individuals from prominent hospitals, medical schools and health organizations nationwide, including: American Public Health Association, American Nurses Association, South Carolina Nurses Association, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Yale School of Nursing, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Beth Israel Medical Center and drSpock.com (see attached for complete letter and list of signatories).
“Police and politicians are in no position to make medical decisions, just like doctors are in no position to assist in making arrests,” said Robert G. Newman, M.D., President of Continuum Health Partners in New York and a signatory of the letter to Dr. Satcher. “Nobody is saying that pregnant women should use drugs — or alcohol or tobacco for that matter. But if they do, the worst thing for the baby is to treat these fundamental health issues as criminal justice matters.”
The Ferguson case, being argued by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, questions whether the pregnant womens’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated when their urine was tested for drugs without their knowledge and the results shared with the police. To search for evidence of a crime, the defendants claim the Charleston program met a “special need” to protect the baby’s health, and was thereby exempt from the warrant requirement.
“There is nothing worse than knowing your doctor is legally allowed – even obligated – to violate your right to privacy,” said Dan Abrahamson, Director of Legal Affairs at The Lindesmith Center – Drug Policy Foundation, who filed an Amicus brief in the case. “The War on Drugs is no excuse to supercede both medical needs and the Constitution.”
Organizations who signed onto amicus briefs condemning the Hospital’s policy include the American Medical Association, American Medical Women’s Association, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Society of Addiction Medicine, American Civil Liberties Union, National Partnership for Women & Families, American Public Health Association, Physicians for Human Rights and the South Carolina Medical Association.
This case is also consistent with the tendency of the War on Drugs to disproportionately target minorities. Of the 30 women who were arrested under the Charleston policy, 29 were African American. The one patient who was not African American was described in hospital records as “liv[ing] with her boyfriend who is a Negro.”
“The real threat to pregnant womens’ health is inadequate medical care, discrimination and poverty,” said Lynn Paltrow, Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who filed the case. “The Medical University hospital joined forces with the police instead of doing what a hospital is supposed to do — provide effective medical treatment – not arrest the patients the hospital has failed.”
ATTENTION JOURNALISTS: For more information, or to arrange an interview with experts or counsel on the Ferguson v. City of Charleston case, please call Tony Newman at 212-548-0383 or Shayna Samuels at 212-547-6916.