Poppy seed bagels lead to false-positive drug tests — and a civil rights fight
Laboring moms say two hospitals drug-tested them without consent
Kate L. has filed a civil rights complaint against Hackensack University Medical Center, claiming workers there drug-testing her without her knowledge or consent when she gave birth to her daughter in 2022. (Photo by Ben Bowens Photography, courtesy of ACLU-NJ)
Two women have filed civil rights complaints against hospitals in Hackensack and Voorhees, alleging workers drug-tested them without their knowledge or consent after they went there to give birth.
The tests resulted in false positives that prompted both hospitals to alert child welfare authorities, who then monitored each family for months even though there was no evidence of drug use or other wrongdoing, according to separate complaints filed last week.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey represents both women in the complaints filed with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights against Hackensack University Medical Center and Virtua Voorhees Hospital.
Molly Linhorst, an ACLU-NJ staff attorney, said unwarranted, nonconsensual drug tests discriminate against women and pregnant people, and she called for an end to such testing practices. With two cases just a month apart in opposite regions of the state, Linhorst said she suspects the practice is widespread.
“This could be happening in hospitals across the state,” she said. “And it creates this pipeline into invasive, unnecessary state investigations that are really traumatic for the people who experience them, especially when they just gave birth.”
In Hackensack, medical staff tested Kate L.’s urine when she arrived last September to give birth to her first child, a test she thought was like countless others she’d gotten during her pregnancy to test for proteins and nutritional deficiencies. Instead, the staff tested it for drugs without her consent — and when it came back positive, didn’t tell her until four days afterward, according to her complaint.
In Voorhees, staff tested Kaitlin K.’s urine when she went into labor with her second child last October, and she also thought the test was a routine screen for proteins. Staff waited a full day before telling her it came back positive for opiates, her complaint says.
In both cases, the women had eaten poppy seed bagels before going to the hospital, resulting in false-positive results, according to their complaints. In declaring their test results positive, the hospitals used laboratory levels dramatically lower than federal guidelines recommend, according to the complaints.
The hospitals then reported the women to the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency, whose workers investigated, did home inspections, and monitored the families for three months afterward, despite subsequent negative drug tests, according to the complaints, which do not include the last names of either woman.
This could be happening in hospitals across the state. And it creates this pipeline into invasive, unnecessary state investigations that are really traumatic for the people who experience them, especially when they just gave birth. – Molly Linhorst, ACLU-NJ attorney
This could be happening in hospitals across the state. And it creates this pipeline into invasive, unnecessary state investigations that are really traumatic for the people who experience them, especially when they just gave birth.
– Molly Linhorst, ACLU-NJ attorney
Kate L. told the New Jersey Monitor the experience shook her faith in medical professionals and left her terrified the system would take her baby away. She also worries some record of that false-positive lurks in her and her baby’s medical files.
“I don’t trust any doctor or any person in a hospital setting,” she said. “Even going to the pediatrician with my child, it’s so hard for me to hand her back over to medical people and not trust them to tell me all the information. And I’m also nervous that everyone also secretly knows about this — and they’re judging me.”
Hospitals that want to drug test patients should do so only after first getting specific, informed consent, Linhorst said.
“That doesn’t mean you’re signing your name to a piece of paper that says they can do whatever medical care they think is necessary,” Linhorst said. “They have to say: This is a drug test, and this is what it’s looking for, and this is what the potential consequences are.”
Kate L. said finding out her hospital drug-tested her came as “a complete shock,” compounded by their four-day delay in reporting the results to her.
“I immediately just broke down crying in front of the doctors questioning like, ‘Are they sure? Can we retest? How come no one said anything? I want to do another test right away.’ I became a complete emotional wreck for that moment and for, like, months after that,” she said.
A widespread practice
Drug-testing laboring mothers without informed consent is far from unprecedented.
Patients in several states — including New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois — have filed similar challenges, resulting in policy changes and financial settlements.
In a 2001 case out of South Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court declared drug-testing of pregnant patients without informed consent a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.
The issue of consent during the childbirth process has sparked civil rights fights on other fronts too. In New Jersey, Michigan, and other states, parents have challenged hospitals’ common practice of extracting newborns’ blood for disease screening, saying they weren’t informed that the states subsequently store and use that blood for purposes beyond disease detection, such as for-profit research and crime investigation.
Beyond consent, though, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists rejected drug-testing laboring moms’ urine because of the potential for false positives and legal upheaval.
It’s unclear if Hackensack and Virtua test all laboring mothers — or even all patients — for drugs or just a select few. Spokespeople at both hospitals said they were unaware of the complaints and couldn’t immediately comment.
Linhorst and Kate L. suspect the practice disproportionately impacts women of color.
“My OB-GYN said to me on the phone that this sometimes happens to women of color,” Kate L. said.
Kate L. is half-Mexican but appears white. She wonders if her many tattoos drove the decision to drug-test her.
She filed her complaint in part to get answers. But also, she hopes her fight will force hospitals statewide to reexamine their testing and reporting policies so that other women are spared the stress, shame, and shock that has rocked her first few months of motherhood.
“Never in a million years did I ever think something like this would happen to me,” she said. “But this can happen to anyone.”
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