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Poppy seeds prompt false positive drug test, women file complaint

Two women filed complaints against hospitals after claiming poppy seed bagels triggered a false positive drug test and they were reported.
Poppy seeds prompt false positive drug test, women file complaint
Posted at 7:38 PM, Mar 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-23 22:38:57-04

Two New Jersey women who filed civil rights complaints against hospitals say they were drug tested without consent and without medical necessity.   

The drug tests for the pregnant women resulted in false positives because they had eaten poppy seed bagels. Based on the false tests, they were reported to the Department of Child Protection and Permanency, according to a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Hackensack University Medical Center and Virtua Vorhee’s Hospital. 

The filings for Kaitlin K. and Kate L. say that both hospitals’ practice of drug testing pregnant patients violates New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination on the basis of sex and pregnancy and seeks that both hospitals end this practice.

“They feel that their ability to mother their children have been questioned,” said Molly Linhorst, staff attorney at ACLU. 

The complaint filed with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights said that the report to DCCP led to an invasive, traumatic investigation that interfered with the first few months of the women's ability to parent their newborns. 

“I felt like the doctors were questioning my character and parenting skills,” Kate L. wrote in a 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.” 

The ACLU contends that drug testing pregnant patients without their consent and knowledge is discriminatory and opposed by healthcare providers because it can deter people from seeking medical care during and after pregnancy.

Both cases were filed as administrative actions with the state civil rights division. This is a separate path away from filing a civil lawsuit where the ACLU asks the state on behalf of the mothers to investigate and potentially take administrative action against the hospitals, explained Bradley Mitchell, an attorney at Stevens & Lee in Princeton, New Jersey, who is not involved with this case. Going this route is usually less costly than court action, he said.

Linhorst said the same legal procedures apply as attorneys for the defendants will have to answer the charges and the women are seeking financial restitution for expenses such as additional medical bills. The incidents should be a warning to everyone on the effects of drug testing, Linhorst said, noting how little the women consumed in poppy seed to trigger a false positive. They had bagels with everything seasonings, she said.

The babies did not test positive for drugs, yet the hospital staff felt it needed to report the women to Child Protective Services, Linhorst said.   

Stereotyping in Drug Testing

According to the National Library of Medicine, pregnant Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be drug tested. 

Patient Kate L. is a biracial Latina and felt that her tattoos may have triggered discrimination based on a caseworker who commented on her tattoos, Linhorst said. 

In Katlin K.’s case, ACLU maintains that she thought she was being tested for proteins when it was testing for opiates. 

“I feel violated,” Kaitlin K. wrote in a statement. “This whole ordeal has been extremely stressful and has turned our lives upside down and now, because of what happened, I live in fear of medical tests and how they might be used against me as a mother.”

Linhorst said her clients never gave specific, informed consent to testing. The complaints seek an investigation of the claims and a change in policy.

“No one should be subjected to unnecessary and non-consensual drug tests. Our clients are sending a clear message to hospitals that these testing and reporting policies are unacceptable,” Linhorst said.   

Scripps News reached out to Hackensack University Medical Center and Virtua Vorhee’s Hospital for comment about the complaints, but both hospitals said they do not comment on pending litigation.

SEE MORE: Doulas, midwives are helping Black women in their birthing experiences


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