Victory for Woman Whose Newborn Baby Was Taken Away After Poppyseed Bagel Caused Positive Drug Test

Here's why drug-testing women at birth is not the best idea.

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A Pennsylvania woman whose newborn baby was taken away after she tested positive for opiates (thanks to eating a poppy-seed bagel) has won a victory in court. Represented by the ACLU, Elizabeth Mort won $143,500 from Lawrence County's child welfare agency and Jameson Hospital. 

Mort says that, in October 2010, the day after she took her baby daughter home from the hospital, cops and social workers showed up at her home and snatched her newborn away. Mort had eaten a poppy-seed bagel shortly after arriving at the hospital where she gave birth, causing the positive drug test that separated a new mother from her infant for five days before authorities decided there was not enough evidence to hold the child. 

Mort's suit alleges that: Jameson Hospital has a lower threshold for drug screening than federal guidelines (300 nanograms per milileter compared to the standard 2,000 nanograms), did not ask Mort if she had eaten anything that might affect the results, and failed to notify her that she tested positive. The ACLU says the hospital and Lawrence County are changing policy so that health authorities will use the infant's first bowel movement, not the mother's urine, to determine maternal drug use. Even so, drug screenings can be inaccurate, and the removal of newborns from their mother's care should not be taken lightly.  According to the AP, another woman is suing the same county for placing her newborn in foster care for a stunning 75 days after she tested positive for opiates -- again from poppy seeds, but this time in a salad dresing. 

Still, poppy is not the only substance that causes false positives in drug tests. Even ingredients in many baby soaps and shampoos (Johnson & Johnson, Aveeno, and CVS brands) can produce false positives for marijuana in newborns.  The science of drug-testing mothers, as well as their infants, is not exactly clear-cut, but the consequences for a positive drug test are swift and severe regardless. 

Adding to the injustice, not all women are equally subjected to the possibility that they may have their newborn baby removed from their custody. Mothers and infants are drug-tested at birth at the discretion of the hospital in which they deliver, but the hospitals that run these tests tend to be public facilities in low-income areas. Many women are not even aware that they have been subjected to these tests. Unsurprisingly, a recent study found that, even after controlling for other factors like health insurance, "black women and their newborns were 1.5 times more likely to be tested for illicit drugs as non-black women." 

Despite commonly held assumptions about drug use during pregnancy, the science suggesting its harm is also limited. The effects of crack cocaine use during pregnancy have been difficult to show in children when researchers control for factors like poverty. Columbia University neuroscientist and researcher Dr. Carl Hart spends much of his time defending women in court, explaining that there is little  scientific precedent to suggest women who use drugs while pregnant are causing significant harm to their fetus (or any more than unlegislated factors like coffee and sleep). The science is especially important when weighing the benefits of removing a child from the mother's custody, possibly placing the infant in care where the rates of abuse and neglect are higher than in the home. 

Plus, it is, of course, only women who are drug tested when they become parents, as their bodies are the ones that give birth. Founder and Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women Lynn Paltrow says this notion that mothers be drug-tested at birth creates a separate, discriminatory legal system for mothers. 

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