Dystopian Seinfeld: Woman Gets Newborn Child Taken Away Over Poppy Seed Cake
In a seventh season episode of "Seinfeld," Elaine has to take a drug test in order to go to Kenya with her boss, J. Peterman. Alas, she can't go because she tests positive for opium. Hijinks ensue and it turns out that the reason she tested positive was because she was eating so many poppy seed muffins, and opium is made from poppy seeds.
It was supposed to be a joke. In real life, it's a lot less of one.
On Easter Sunday last year, a pregnant woman went to the emergency room in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, with high blood pressure — cause to be concerned, given that she was 34 weeks along and had already been diagnosed with preeclampsia. Once she was admitted to St. Alexius Medical Center, blood and urine samples were taken, which one would normally assume were to screen for any additional health issues. They weren't. The Catholic hospital was giving her a drug test without her consent or knowledge.
And just like Elaine Benes's, it came back positive. Just like Elaine Benes, she hadn't actually been doing heroin or smoking opium. Rather, she had just celebrated Easter, where she had eaten makowiec, a traditional Polish poppy seed cake.
When the woman — referred to as Mrs. F. in the official complaint — gave birth in the same hospital two days later, her baby was immediately taken away and brought to the NICU, despite the child having no health problems outside of being a little premature. Although she told providers about the poppy seed cake, rumors of her suspected opiate use spread among the staff.
She had been reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Ms. F. was discharged on April 10, but her newborn remained in the NICU. Two days later, she found out she was being reported to the Department of Children and Family Services. During a visit to the NICU, a social worker had questioned Ms. F. about her suspected drug and alcohol use; the social worker instructed her to “undress her baby to check for marks and bruises, and took photographs of him,” according to documents. Ms. F. was horrified.
Days later, another social worker arrived at her home, and told Ms. F. that she would be getting a “safety plan”—unless she found a third party to stay with her and her husband around the clock, her baby would not be discharged from the NICU. With all their family living back in their native Poland, the couple arranged for a family friend who they’d never met to stay with them.
Oh sure, a random stranger staying in their house. What could possibly go wrong?
Aside from the fact that she never should have been tested without her knowledge in the first place, there are myriad ways to differentiate actual opiate use from eating some cake. Not only are the levels different, but a hair follicle test would be a far more accurate way to determine if Mrs. F had actually been "abusing" drugs.
This is not the first time this has happened. It's happened in Maryland and it's happened in New York. It's part of a larger trend we've seen across the United States with the criminalization of pregnancy, where people are being convicted of manslaughter for having miscarriages.
Even if Mrs. F were using opioids, that is not a reason for her to be treated as she was. We need to make it safe for expectant mothers who do have drug problems to seek help and pregnancy care without worrying that there could be potential criminal consequences to doing so. They need treatment and help, not punishment. We also do not need people not seeking care when something goes wrong with their pregnancy because they had a poppy seed bagel for breakfast.
As with most things, there is frequently a racial component to who gets tested for drugs and who does not.
“Saint Alexius routinely drug tests perinatal patients without seeking their informed consent, despite the fact that they do not drug test any other class of patients—including fathers—and reports perinatal patients who receive positive test results” to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the complaint reads. Leading medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, widely oppose drug testing pregnant patients absent a clear indication that one is necessary. These tests also largely impact marginalized communities, as NAPW told Rewire News Group.
“Despite the fact that people of all races use drugs at similar rates, hospitals disproportionately test and report pregnant and postpartum patients of color,” NAPW (National Advocates for Pregnant Women) staff attorney Emma Roth told Rewire News Group. “One study in which urine toxicology tests were collected over a six-month period found that despite similar rates of substance use among Black patients and white patients, Black women were reported to social services at approximately ten times the rate of white women.”
Well that certainly is not at all shocking.
It is beyond understandable that people are cautious about children being mistreated or abused, it's understandable to be concerned about the ability of drug addicts to care for children, but there are ways to do this that are not harmful and humiliating — that help rather than hurt. It is not necessary to deprive both parent and child of all-important first days and weeks of bonding, or to stick a newborn baby in a NICU without a significant medical reason for doing so. It's cruel.
The National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the ACLU of Illinois have filed a lawsuit against Saint Alexius alleging that Mrs. F was discriminated against, as she would not have been drug tested without her consent if she were not a pregnant woman.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse