Random drug testing has been considered invasive for quite some time, but the emphasis on testing pregnant women has become an issue of race and social status. Studies have shown that pregnant women in less affluent neighborhoods or who are minorities are tested for drugs more often than other women. The drug tests are used as a means of determining parenting ability, but some advocates and experts disagree.
Although marijuana is a common reason these mothers are incriminated, Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University who researches substance abuse, said scientific data shows that the use of marijuana is less risky than that of cigarettes or alcohol. “It’s convenient to focus on marijuana,” Hart said. “The byproducts of marijuana stay in your system longer than any other drugs.”
Some hospitals enforce drug tests on newborns if the mothers refuse one while pregnant. Positive drug tests are reported to the Administration for Children’s Services. Many times the tests show false positives; for example if a mother eats poppy seeds, which will come up positive for heroin in a drug test.
“Reporting becomes another way of controlling people of color, like stop-and-frisk,” said Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “Drug tests do not tell you how somebody parents.”
Paltrow said the organization frequently receives calls from mothers who have gone through the process, not only in New York, but across the country.
While Megan McKenzie lived in South Carolina, she was given a long document from the Greenville Memorial Hospital to sign a week before she was expected to deliver her first child in 2008. McKenzie, 28, said the document was not explained to her, so she refused to sign it. Hospital staff later told her it was for a drug test, but she still refused, wanting to stress the importance of informed consent.
After her daughter was born, the hospital tested her infant for drugs without McKenzie’s permission, and she came up positive for marijuana.
“I was bullied into taking a drug test for myself, and I passed both the urine test and the hair test,” McKenzie said.
Regardless, they still held her daughter in the hospital for a week, and two months later she was arrested for child abuse and neglect because of her daughter’s drug test results.
“It completely disrupted my bonding time,” she said. “It was a completely harsh way to enter motherhood.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that testing for drugs without a patient’s permission violated the Fourth Amendment and was considered an unreasonable search. But according to Paltrow, who worked on the court case, the ruling did not apply to cases about the protection of children.
Emma Ketteringham is the managing attorney of the family law practice at the Bronx Defenders. They are assigned to represent all the parents in the South Bronx who are accused of child abuse and neglect.
“Studies have shown that a policy of testing and reporting drug use poses a greater threat to her fetus because it causes fear in women,” Ketteringham said. “While the testing and reporting is justified as protecting children, it actually has the opposite effect.”