Woman required to take pregnancy test before flight to U.S. island gets airline apology

The airline said it was responding to concerns about birth tourism, when women from other countries give birth in the U.S. so the babies are eligible for U.S. citizenship.
A Hong Kong Express aircraft taxis at Hong Kong International Airport.
A Hong Kong Express aircraft taxis at Hong Kong International Airport.Paul Yeung / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Janelle Griffith

An airline has apologized after its staff required a passenger take a pregnancy test in November in order to fly from Hong Kong to the Pacific island of Saipan, a part of the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands.

“We would like to apologize unreservedly to anyone who has been affected by this," the airline, Hong Kong Express Airways, said in a statement to NBC News.

The airline came under fire after a 25-year-old Japanese citizen, Midori Nishida, said the airline staff required she take a pregnancy test as part of a "fit-to-fly" assessment.

The airline said it was acting in response to concerns raised by authorities in Saipan.

"We took actions on flights to Saipan from February 2019 to help ensure U.S. immigration laws were not being undermined," the airline, which was acquired in July by Cathay Pacific, said in the statement. "We have immediately suspended the practice while we review it.”

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The company also said: "Under our new management, we recognize the significant concerns this practice has caused."

The Wall Street Journal reported in its story on the passenger having to take the pregnancy test that Saipan "has become a destination for women intending to give birth on U.S. territory, making their babies eligible for American citizenship."

In 2018, tourists gave birth to 582 babies on the islands, while 492 were born to permanent residents, according to an annual health care report by the Commonwealth for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The passenger required to take the pregnancy test in November said the policy was an invasion of privacy and discriminated against women based on their appearance.

"The practice is also unheard of, and I thought it wasn't the best way to address the issue of birth tourism, which is what they're concern was," Nishida told NBC News in an interview Wednesday night.

She said that although she had indicated on a check-in questionnaire that she was not pregnant, airline staff asked that she undergo a "fit-to-fly" assessment that included a pregnancy test.

Nishida, who lives in Tokyo, said she was escorted to a public restroom where she was handed a strip to urinate on. She said the test was negative, and she boarded the flight to visit her parents in Saipan, where they have been residents since the 1990s and where she lived until she was 18.

After the incident, Nishida said she contacted the airline twice via email and once by phone to file a complaint and request an explanation for the imposition. After the airline was contacted by The Wall Street Journal in November for comment for its article, Nishida said the airline emailed her an apology.

"The only time I ever was able to get in contact with someone from HK Express prior to their apology was when I called their customer service line to lodge the complaint," she said. "I was told that my complaint would be brought up to management." But she said she heard nothing after that.