Poppy seeds causing false positives on drug tests has long been a known phenomenon, if something of a punchline. On Seinfeld, Elaine’s hankering for poppy seed muffins causes her to test positive for “opium” on a urine test, ultimately costing her a trip to Kenya. It’s an issue in the real world, too. In February, the Department of Defense issued a warning saying service members should avoid “food products and baked goods” that contain poppy seeds, lest they get picked up on drug tests.
For pregnant people, this quirk — which comes about because the poppy plant is also the source of the powerful narcotic opium, from which natural opioids are derived — can have traumatizing consequences, especially with hospitals’ alleged habits of drug-testing patients without their consent. In New Jersey, two women known publicly as Kate L. and Kaitlin K. have brought civil rights actions against two hospitals which they say gave them drug tests without their consent. In these instances, both women had eaten bagels with poppy seeds on them before arriving at the hospital to give birth (one was an everything bagel, not even full poppy seed, according to reporting by The Washington Post). In both cases, they claim in their lawsuits, the bagels resulted in false positive results for opiates on the clandestine drug tests. Both women were subjected to home inspections and interviews by child protective services.
In a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union announcing the New Jersey lawsuits, ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Molly Linhorst said, “No one should be subjected to unnecessary and nonconsensual drug tests.” She added, “Discriminatory testing policies like these upend what should be a time of joy for families, and so often subject them to further trauma and unwarranted investigation by the state.”
The issue of women being tested without their permission appears to be more widespread in recent years. In Brooklyn in 2021, according to recent reporting by New York, a nurse stopped a woman named Terisa immediately after she gave birth to her son and told her not to breastfeed because, the nurse informed her, she had tested positive for marijuana — which is legal in New York — earlier in her pregnancy. That was the first time Terisa said she’d heard she had been drug tested. Moments later, she learned she had also been tested in the birthing room, again without her knowledge. The incident started a 90-day process with the New York City Administration for Child Services and, Terisa said, traumatized her and her family in the wake of the birth. She has brought a complaint before the New York State Division of Human Rights.
In a post-Roe nation, new mothers are already fighting an uphill battle for agency in their healthcare. Women – and in particular Black women – have said over and over that they aren’t being listened to or adequately cared for before, during, and after childbirth. Maternal mortality rates are on the rise, with Black women facing a rate two to three times that of white women. In Massachusetts, a horrific case of filicide has reawakened difficult talks about postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, which are known to be under-diagnosed and under-treated in women who recently gave birth. Now, the use of legal marijuana or even the consumption of an everything bagel can set in motion a government investigation that risks the removal of a child from their mother’s care.
Terisa, who is Black, alleged in her complaint that she was discriminated against “on the basis of sex, pregnancy, race, and marital status,” while one of the women in New Jersey wondered to the New Jersey Monitor whether her tattoos caused hospital workers to decide to give her a drug test. The women in New Jersey have accused the hospitals of violating the state’s anti-discrimination law by drug testing them without their permission. The lawsuits brought by the women in both states are asking institutions, among other demands, to stop the practice of testing pregnant patients without their permission and to retrain staff in drug-testing procedures.
“I felt like the doctors were questioning my character and parenting skills,” Kate L. said in the ACLU’s statement. “I’m terrified of ever going to a hospital again; I’m always going to worry that our family could be torn apart. That’s why we are doing all we can to stop this from happening to anyone else.”