New York's Maternity Ward Drug Tests

By Sarah Beller 12/26/12

Drug tests are disproportionately enforced against new moms from low-income areas.

Wealthy women are rarely tested. Photo via

Over a dozen New York City maternity wards are habitually testing new moms for drugs, then turning any kind of positive result over to child-protection authorities. Family Court attorneys say they see "scores of neglect proceedings each year" activated by positive marijuana tests—and they're almost exclusively against low-income and minority women. Private hospitals in affluent neighborhoods rarely test new mothers for drugs, whereas hospitals that primarily serve poor women of color make those tests routine, and sometimes even mandatory. “It’s absolutely discriminatory,” says Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "This all comes out of the same history of racism, the drug war, misinformation." For example, Lenox Hill Hospital on the chichi Upper East Side—where only about 12% of in-patients are uninsured or on Medicaid—only tests if the mother is obviously inebriated. But St. Barnabas Hospital—which is also private but serves an impoverished area of the Bronx, with roughly 73% of patients uninsured or on Medicaid—requires all new mothers to undergo testing. If they refuse, their babies are tested, a spokesman confirms. The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that forcing a new mother to take drug tests that could lead to criminal charges amounts to an unconstitutional search—but that ruling doesn't cover civil child protection proceedings, like the neglect charges filed by child-protection services. Now, in a new approach, attorneys fighting against mandatory drug testing for low-income moms are citing scientific findings that marijuana use poses less risk to a fetus than cigarettes or alcohol. In his expert testimony in a Brooklyn case earlier this year, Columbia University neuroscientist Carl Hart wrote: "All the scientific research leads me to conclude that recreational use of marijuana does not undermine responsible parenting."

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.