WASHINGTON -- A university hospital has been accused of testing women for drug use without their consent, and collecting confidential information from them to turn over to the police without their knowledge when the women came to the hospital for prenatal care.
In a charge filed yesterday with the National Institutes of Health, the hospital was also accused of conducting illegal human experimentation.
The drug-testing program at the hospital, the Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston, is intended to force drug-addicted women who are pregnant to stop using drugs by threatening them with jail if they fail to cooperate with the hospital's regimen of prenatal visits and to attend a drug-treatment program.
The county official in charge of the program estimated that since 1989 "40-some" women in the program have been arrested.
The official, David Schwacke, the current county solicitor who inherited the program from his predecessor, Charles Condon, said in a telephone interview that the women arrested typically go to jail for a short time, and before trial were again asked if they wanted treatment.
"The number actually prosecuted is very small, only four cases, I think," Mr. Schwacke said. Even after being prosecuted, he said, the women can receive probation instead of a jail term if they agree to treatment.
"There is no one imprisoned now, except those on pretrial detention status when they can't make bond," Mr. Schwacke said.
The complaint sent yesterday said that the women were "virtually all African-American," and that some were arrested hours after they gave birth. Some of the women were handcuffed and put in leg shackles, or handcuffed to hospital beds during the arrests.
A spokesman for the hospital, Scott Regan, said, "This was never intended to be an experiment, it was strictly a treatment program."
He said the program was still operating, although there had been no arrests of pregnant women recently.
"These cases are a burden to their families and the state," Mr. Regan said. "All we are trying to do is something positive for the growing problem here in South Carolina and around the country.
He added: "The program works. Many of these women go and get treatment."
An article published by the hospital staff in a medical journal said the program was intended "to add some teeth to our counseling efforts."
It added, "The threat of exposure and arrest does appear to be a deterrent to cocaine use." The article said the purpose of the program was to protect the fetus.
Details of the case were released yesterday when the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in Manhattan filed charges of human experimentation against the hospital with the National Institutes of Health.
The charges also said that the women were never told that if they sought prenatal care they would have to give up their right to medical confidentiality, or that all their medical records and conversations with doctors were being passed to the police.
Lynn Paltrow, a lawyer for the Reproductive Law and Policy center, said that while the women were given appointments for drug treatment, there were no drug programs in South Carolina for pregnant women.
No provision was made for the women to be transported to their appointments, and no provision was made for taking care of their children if they did get to their appointments.
The center also filed a suit three months ago on behalf of the women against the hospital, the county attorney and the Charleston police.