Before Kate L. gave birth to a baby girl last September, a nurse at New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center collected a urine sample from the soon-to-be mother. Kate thought nothing of it, because she was accustomed to having her urine tested for protein levels during her pregnancy. She had no idea that her urine would be tested for drugs, which resulted in a terrifying, monthslong investigation aimed at determining if she was a fit mother.
Kaitlin K. had a similar experience when she gave birth to a baby boy at Virtua Voorhees Hospital in Camden County, New Jersey, the following month. The immediate culprit in both cases seems to have been a poppy seed bagel that triggered a false positive for opiates. That, in turn, led to state investigations of alleged child neglect. But the real blame, according to complaints filed this month by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey, lies with the hospitals, which it says conducted nonconsensual, medically unnecessary, and woefully inadequate drug tests, then reported the erroneous results to the New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP).
The ACLU, which is asking the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety’s Division on Civil Rights to stop that practice and award compensatory damages, argues that a policy of “drug testing perinatal patients on the basis of sex and pregnancy” constitutes illegal discrimination under state law. Whatever the legal merits of that claim, the sneaky, arbitrary, high-handed, and cruel treatment described in the complaints shows what can happen when medical personnel forsake their ethical responsibilities in service of the war on drugs.
“No one should be subjected to unnecessary and nonconsensual drug tests,” says ACLU of New Jersey staff attorney Molly Linhorst. “Our clients are sending a clear message to hospitals that these testing and reporting policies are unacceptable. 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.”