A Chicago mother filed a discrimination charge on Friday against the hospital where she gave birth, alleging that the facility, Amita Health Saint Alexius Medical Center, drug tested her without her consent. When the test returned a false-positive for opiates as a result of her eating poppy seed cake, hospital staff reported her to the state and child welfare authorities subjected her family to intense scrutiny, requiring someone to be at home with the first-time mother and baby boy at all times.
The National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed the charge against Saint Alexius with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. NAPW filed similar lawsuits in December on behalf of two women in New York state who alleged that a hospital drug-tested them without their knowledge. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists rejects non-consensual drug testing and has warned against reporting pregnant people and new parents for substance misuse.
When reached for comment, a Saint Alexius spokesperson told Jezebel “we do not provide comment on pending litigation.”
The woman, identified in the complaint as Ms. F, went to the hospital on April 4, 2021—Easter Sunday—when her blood pressure rose. She was 34 weeks pregnant at the time and had preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication marked by high blood pressure and can be fatal if not treated—the most effective treatment is delivery. Saint Alexius staff took blood and urine samples from Ms. F which she thought were necessary for her preeclampsia. In fact, they ran a drug test and it came back positive for opiates. Ms. F, who is originally from Poland, repeatedly told staff that she had eaten makowiec, a Polish poppy seed cake traditionally served on Easter, that day and the day before, but they brushed her off. She doesn’t know if they ever ran a second test to confirm the presumptive positive.
Ms. F. had a Cesarean section on April 6 and she still remembers the staff talking about her on the operating table like she didn’t exist. “They were preparing me and they were just talking about it, loud. Like ‘mom is positive for opiates’ and to be prepared for the baby’s condition,” she told Jezebel.
The baby, though premature, was healthy and had no symptoms of withdrawal. When Ms. F was discharged a few days later, her son stayed in the NICU and they tested his cord blood, which came back positive for morphine. A hospital social worker told Ms. F she believed she hadn’t used drugs but still had to report her to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
“I was afraid that they were going to keep him longer than he needs to be there or they would take him away,” Ms. F. said. “Until that time, I didn’t know that there were other poppy seed cases in the US. Of course we googled it and [saw] a case, I don’t remember where it was, where they took the baby away from mom.”
A DCFS agent said in order for her baby to leave the NICU, she and her husband had to complete a “safety plan” which required them to have someone at home with Ms. F. and the baby at all times for a few weeks. Mr. F. had to work and they didn’t have family who could help so this meant hiring a family friend, who had to come with them to pick up the baby from the NICU on April 21. A DCFS agent and another state employee came to the home regularly and insisted on seeing the baby, even if he was sleeping. Ms. F. said the presence of these strangers in her home was traumatizing. DCFS finally terminated her case on July 1, 2021, after finding no credible information of abuse or neglect, but it will maintain her file for five years.
Ms. F., who is 46, said the experience was all the more upsetting since she and her husband tried to conceive for three years. “It was really hard for us to get pregnant and I was so happy to do this and I was so excited and it was kind of like taken away from me,” she said. “I was grateful and happy at the hospital for him being healthy, taking great care of him, but I was so ashamed.”
She hopes the complaint results in the hospital ending non-consensual drug tests in pregnant people—a practice she frankly wants to stop nationwide. “I don’t want any other mom to go through this,” she said. “It’s so unnecessary, so stressful, and shameful.”
The failed war on drugs has resulted in testing laws to ostensibly provide drug treatment to pregnant people, but the laws have instead resulted in increased suspicion, testing, and reporting to child protective services. Those referrals can lead to family separation and loss of employment, as well as deterring people from seeking crucial prenatal and perinatal care, NAPW said. Due to racism in the medical system, the impact of these laws falls hardest on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous families.
The unequal burden of pregnancy surveillance on non-white people will only increase when Roe v. Wade is gutted or overturned in June and states enforce fetal harm laws. As Jezebel’s Kylie Cheung wrote in November: “Just as data shows that non-white people experience higher rates of stillbirths, miscarriage, and pregnancy complications than white people, state surveillance and criminalization of these outcomes isn’t race-neutral, either.”
Emma Roth, a staff attorney for NAPW who is representing Ms. F., underscored that Roe protects all pregnant people, no matter how those pregnancies end.
“We anticipate a surge in state surveillance, prosecution, and penalization of women in relation to their pregnancies when the Supreme Court overturns or erodes Roe,” Roth told Jezebel in an email. “Roe and its progeny established constitutional protections that are critical for those who wish to carry their pregnancies to term, in addition to those who seek to terminate their pregnancies. With those protections under threat, we fear that state actors and hospitals will be even more likely to subordinate the rights of pregnant people to an asserted interest in fetal life.”
In a matter of months, the United States could become a place where it’s impossible for people to get an abortion in their state, but where eating a bagel leads to a call to child services, or having a substance use disorder gets you thrown in jail.