Forced Pregnancy Testing: Blatant Discrimination and a Gross Violation of Human Rights

Earlier this month, news spread of a Louisiana charter school’s policy that would have allowed faculty to force any student suspected of being pregnant to take a pregnancy test—and, if the test came back positive, to force her to go on home study.

Forced pregnancy testing in schools is a gross violation of young women’s fundamental human rights. Through legal advocacy, I have been working to get it recognized as such and outlawed—in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, in my home country of Nigeria, and in other countries in the African region where it occurs. It is a shock to see a practice I’ve come to associate with schools in the developing world being replicated in the United States.

I have seen the consequences firsthand, and they are devastating. In secondary school, the older sister of a classmate, who was a year ahead of us, was found to be pregnant and expelled by school administrators. We eventually learned that she was the victim of a rape which occurred in her home, but she was too terrified to tell anyone what had happened. As is the case with many victims of this injustice, no other schools would accept her. Her hopes for a better future were doomed.

In Tanzania, where nearly 44 percent of girls have either given birth or are pregnant by the age of 19, school administrators across the country force schoolgirls to undergo demeaning pregnancy tests often just before completing primary school — around the age of 11—and with increasing, and random, frequency throughout secondary school. Some girls must strip to their underwear to reveal physical signs of pregnancy. Others are coerced into taking urine-based pregnancy tests. No one can refuse to be examined or tested.

The impact is staggering, long-lasting, and far-reaching. About 8,000 girls are expelled or drop out because of pregnancy in Tanzania every year. Too often families abandon their pregnant teen daughters, forcing them to live on the streets with their babies. Faced with the possibility of homelessness, some young women succumb to pressure from their families to seek financial support through early or arranged marriages. The impact of these violations to their rights to health, education, privacy, and freedom from discrimination ripples throughout young women’s lives. Many female leaders of human rights advocacy groups still remember, over twenty years later, how humiliating and disempowering it was to experience forced testing even though they did not turn out to be pregnant.

Government officials do next to nothing to improve the situation despite its epidemic proportions; nearly 60 percent of the country’s adolescents have sex before 18. And in a double standard that’s all too common in many places throughout the world, while young women are stigmatized and penalized for pregnancy, the men and boys involved are rarely identified and face few consequences for their role.

In the United States, the reaction to the news about the Louisiana charter school was swift. Under threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU, the school reversed course and amended its student pregnancy policy, which no longer includes the invasive forced pregnancy testing it initially announced. The revised policy now assures female students the opportunity to continue schooling on campus throughout pregnancy and the option for homeschooling. This is a just and appropriate result.

Nevertheless, the emergence of this idea in an American school should trouble anyone concerned with the protection of our fundamental constitutional and human rights. And it should serve as a reminder of the importance of guarding vigilantly against violations of these rights not just in the developing world, but also—sadly, it seems—in the U.S.

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  • rebellious-grrl

    Glad it was overturned but this is indeed troubling. Forcing girls to take a pregnancy test is a massive violation of human rights.

    Thanks for posting this story I missed it in the news.

  • thalwen

    Such a policy is clearly unconstitutional so, barring the Supreme Court getting another crazy and declaring women to be sub-human, I don’t see this getting much traction. However, the state of sex education and treatment of pregnant/mothering teens is not going to improve as long as the religious right dictates school policy. It isn’t a coincidence that the most religious right states have the highest rates of teen pregnancy.

  • crowepps

    There is no constitutional right not to be discriminated against on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, Justice Antonin Scalia said recently.

    The Supreme Court’s most senior associate justice told an audience at the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco that outlawing such discrimination is up to lawmakers, not the Constitution.

    ”If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, you have legislatures,” Scalia said, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

    Although the Court has used Fourteenth Amendment as a basis for protecting against sex discrimination, Scalia said he does not believe that interpretation was intended by the amendment’s drafters.

    ”Nobody thought it was directed against sex discrimination,” Scalia said, adding that while he doesn’t believe such discrimination should happen, the constitutional bar interpreted by courts is ”a modern invention.”

    Scalia also said that other activity, such as the burning of the Quran, is protected by the Constitution – a sentiment echoed last week by fellow high court jurist Justice Stephen Breyer.

    ”It may be a very bad idea, but a lot of stupid stuff is perfectly constitutional,” Scalia said, according to SF Appeal.

    Justice Scalia believes it’s entirely constitutional for legislatures to make laws that have the effect of reducing women to second class citizens.

  • thalwen

    The Scalia/Bork types regard anything that takes away women’s rights as constitutional, hence my statement that one more crazy on the Court and we could have such a scenario. Like I said, I would not be surprised if such legal “scholarship” would declare women to not be considered human beings at all under the Constitution. But I do not consider Scalia/Bork types to be legitimate constitutional thinkers as their jurisprudence shifts to accomodate their political beliefs and those of their conservative friends. But the existence of judges that will disregard the law is not a reason to say the law is invalid, rather a reason to vigorously fight to have an executive and legislature in place that will make sure that judges are nominated to follow the law rather than toe the party line.

    However, to any sane and mininally educated lawyer, such a policy is clearly unconstitutional on several grounds besides equal protection such as due process and illegal search and seizure. It is also clearly an issue of equal protection and right to privacy. Any court that is following the law and the Constitution would have a very easy time with such a policy which is why the school dropped it so quickly and why others haven’t stood up to proclaim it as a good idea. 

  • crowepps

    The person who is elected President in this election will likely appoint several Supreme Court justices.  Romney/Ryan will appoint conservative justices who think the only reason women exist is to be disposable containers for a fetus.  Women should vote as though their lives depend on it, because it does.