Interventions in Health Care Settings and the Role of Medical Professionals

In this section we discuss findings indicating that some medical and public health professionals have worked with law enforcement and other state officials to deprive pregnant women of their liberty. Although it is often presumed that medical information is confidential and rigorously protected by constitutional and statutory privacy protections as well as principles of medical ethics, cases we have identified challenge that assumption. Similarly, the results of those disclosures, including bedside interrogations by police and other state authorities, likely contradict most medical patients' expectations of privacy and humane treatment.

We note that state and federal law is extremely variable in terms of when and whether health care providers may be required to report information to civil child welfare authorities that would reveal evidence of a pregnant woman's drug or alcohol use or abuse (Paltrow, Cohen, and Carey 2000; Ondersma, Malcoe, and Simpson 2001). These laws also sometimes fail to define what must be reported (i.e., the term “drug-affected” newborn in the federal law addressing this issue is not defined) (Weber 2007). Mandated reporting and civil child welfare responses deserve more attention than can be provided here. Instead, we focus on our findings indicating a wide variety of disclosures, some of which are clearly prohibited by law and all of which challenge the idea that medical and public health approaches are distinct from law enforcement approaches addressing drug use and maternal, fetal, and child health issues (Gomez 1997).

In two-thirds of the cases (n = 276), we were able to identify the mechanism by which the case came to the attention of police, prosecutors, and courts. In 112 cases, the disclosure of information that led to the arrest, detention, or forced intervention was made by health care, drug treatment, or social work professionals, including doctors, nurses, midwives, hospital social workers, hospital administrators, and drug treatment counselors (Dube 1998). In at least 47 cases, health care and hospital-based social work professionals disclosed confidential information about pregnant women to child welfare or social service authorities, who in turn reported the case to the police.

Hospital-based health care providers and social workers appear more likely to disclose information about patients of color (see table 2). In 240 cases, both race and reporting mechanism were known. Nearly half (48 percent) of African American women were reported to the police by health care providers, compared to less than one-third (27 percent) of white women. White women, by contrast, were far more likely (45 percent) to have their cases come to the attention of the police through other mechanisms, such as reports by a probation or parole officer, an arrest unrelated to pregnancy, or a report from a boyfriend or family member.

Far from being a bulwark against outside intrusion and protecting patient privacy and confidentiality, we find that health care and other “helping” professionals are sometimes the people gathering information from pregnant women and new mothers and disclosing it to police, prosecutors, and court officials. In some cases hospital medical staff have specifically collaborated with police and prosecutors to develop a coordinated system of searching pregnant women for evidence of illegal drug use, reporting women who test positive to the police, and helping the police carry out arrests of the hospitalized women. In Ferguson v. City of Charleston, the US Supreme Court held that such collaboration violated a patient's Fourth Amendment constitutional rights to privacy. Ferguson also held that medical staff who collect and disclose patient information in order to advance law enforcement purposes may be held liable for damages. Nevertheless, as our earlier discussion of cases from Amarillo, Texas, demonstrates, collection of patient information for law enforcement purposes has occurred since Ferguson.

Our research also revealed that in some cases making a report to child welfare authorities was no different than making a report directly to law enforcement officials. For example, as part of a long-standing partner ship among social workers, local police, and the Maryland state attorney's office, medical personnel at Easton Memorial Hospital reported positive drug test results of new mothers or their newborns to the Talbot County Department of Social Services, which in turn, and by agreement, passed that information on to the police. In Tennessee, Anita Gail Watkins, a forty-three-year-old African American woman, was reported to the Department of Human Services (DHS) after she confided in her doctor that she had used cocaine before the birth of her son. A doctor at the hospital explained that “our goal from a medical standpoint is the best outcome for the infant. When there is evidence of drug use, we notify DHS. Where the trail goes from there is not up to us.”The disclosure to DHS led to a Clarksville Police Department detective, who arrested Watkins and charged her with the crime of reckless endangerment (Crosby

Disclosures of patient information to law enforcement authorities, whether directly from health care providers or conveyed through child welfare agencies, have resulted in bedside interrogations that are reminiscent of the days before Roe when women suspected of having illegal abortions were subjected to humiliating police questioning about intimate details of their lives while lying, and sometimes dying, in their hospital beds (Reagan 1998). For example, Sally Hughes DeJesus, a twenty-eight-year-old white woman from North Carolina, experienced a relapse and used cocaine after eleven months of abstinence. She told her midwife what had happened, reporting that “I told her I needed help .... I was afraid for my baby” (Beiser 2000). According to a news story, the midwife told the hospital where DeJesus was having the baby about her drug use. When the doctors there performed a drug test on the healthy newborn and found that it had been exposed prenatally to cocaine, they called the police. Following this report, “As DeJesus lay recuperating in her hospital room in Henderson County, North Carolina, sheriffs marched in to interrogate her” (ibid.). She was then charged with felonious child abuse. Cases in this study reveal that women who had recently given birth, suffered a stillbirth, or were believed to have self-induced an abortion were subjected to bedside interrogations. Women have been interrogated while still experiencing the effects of sedatives given during cesarean surgery. In one case, police were called so quickly that they were present when the woman was informed she had lost the pregnancy. The detective who interrogated the bereaved woman in that case asked, among other things, “Did you do everything in your power to ensure that you'd have a healthy

In many cases, hospital staff disclosed information to police and prosecutors despite principles of patient confidentiality and apparently without any court order or other legal authority requiring them to do so. Such disclosures were clear in the Melissa Rowland case discussed above. The probable cause statement (describing the grounds for the fetal homicide charge) relied extensively on statements made by doctors and nurses who had examined Rowland. The fact that Rowland signed a form acknowledging that she was leaving the hospital against medical advice was used against her. While health care providers at LDS (Latter Day Saints) Hospital freely discussed Rowland's case with the police, the hospital's official spokesperson nevertheless cited “medical privacy” as one of the reasons for declining to comment on the case to the press (Sage 2004).

A Wisconsin obstetrician who was providing twenty-four-year-old Angela M. W. with prenatal care suspected that she was using cocaine or other drugs. When blood tests allegedly confirmed the obstetrician's suspicion, he confronted Angela about her drug use. She then stopped coming in for scheduled appointments, at which point the obstetrician reported her to the Waukesha Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Relying on this information, DHHS petitioned the juvenile court for an order directing the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department to take Angela's fetus into protective custody. With the obstetrician's sworn statement against his patient as the sole source of information about the case, the juvenile court appointed a guardian ad litem for Angela's fetus and issued an order requiring that the fetus “be detained ... and transported to Waukesha Memorial Hospital for inpatient treatment and protection.”According to the order, “Such detention will by necessity result in the detention of the unborn child's mother, This 1997 Wisconsin case occurred before the state adopted a law specifically permitting the commitment of a pregnant woman who “habitually lacks self-control in the use of alcohol beverages or controlled substances.”Notably, however, this law does not mandate that health care providers report their pregnant patients to state authorities (Martino 1998; Quirmbach and Montagne 1998).

The Angela M. W. case illustrates that threats of punitive responses discourage some women from continuing medical care. In the Marlowe case discussed earlier, Marlowe fled the hospital while in active labor rather than submit to unnecessary surgery. She found a hospital that respected her decision making and delivered a healthy baby vaginally. In South Carolina, a thirty-three-year-old biracial woman, Theresa Joseph, was in her first trimester of pregnancy when she was admitted to the Medical University of South Carolina for treatment of a severe foot infection. Because Joseph was pregnant and acknowledged having a drug problem, she was threatened with arrest under the hospital's policy. Joseph responded to the threat by leaving the hospital against medical advice and avoiding both prenatal care and drug treatment for the remainder of her pregnancy. Several other women not only avoided prenatal care and hospital births because they feared child removal or arrest but also delayed seeking, or failed altogether to obtain, medical care for themselves or their newborn babies for the same reasons.

Alma Baker, a thirty-four-year-old white woman in Texas, was arrested on charges of delivering a controlled substance to a minor when her twins were born and tested positive for THC, a chemical compound found in marijuana. Baker squarely addressed how fear of reporting and punishment may have a deterrent effect when she said, “If I would have known that I'd get in trouble for telling my doctor the truth [that she was using cannabis to calm her nausea] I would have either lied or not gone to the doctor” (Gorman 2004).

Individual health care providers and social workers have in some instances arguably violated ethical standards by breaching privacy and confidentiality, overriding patient decision making, and facilitating the arrest or other punitive detention of a patient (Jos, Marshall, and Perlmutter 1995). To be sure, professional medical, public health, and social work organizations and individuals have also played a vital role in challenging such actions. Our research found that more than 250 professional and advocacy organizations and individual experts have joined one or more amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in cases documented in this study. These briefs bring courts' attention to the dangerous impact that arrests, detentions, and forced interventions have on maternal, fetal, and child health (e.g., Abrahamson et al.