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New Research Sheds Light on Addiction Treatment

Pregnant Women, New Mothers Face Barriers to Help

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Drug-addicted pregnant women and new mothers may avoid vital medical treatment according to Rebecca Stone's research.  

By Julia Gavin

Fear, misinformation and lack of resources are some of the factors that put drug-addicted pregnant women and new mothers in increasingly precarious positions when it comes to finding treatment, according to newly published research by Rebecca Stone, a lecturer in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies.

“Women in general face gendered barriers to accessing treatment for substance abuse, but it’s especially difficult for pregnant women,” says Stone, who interviewed 30 women in Michigan who used alcohol or other drugs while pregnant for her study, which was published in Health & Justice Journal.

“They’re afraid of what will happen to them if they admit to using illicit drugs. They fear that they can’t speak confidentially with their doctors and that their doctors will report them to law enforcement and child protective services,” she says.

Research has shown that thorough prenatal care can help offset some of the issues associated with substance abuse during pregnancy, yet many women don’t seek help due to fears of criminal charges and the possibility of having their children taken away. As new laws about substance abuse during pregnancy come into play, including one in Tennessee that considers drug use while pregnant assault, fears of legal repercussions are mounting, Stone says.  

Stone’s interviews also underscored the lack of addiction treatment services for pregnant women. Several women reported there was just one treatment facility that was known to care for pregnant women in their region but it was located more than 100 miles away, making sustained treatment difficult. This rarity of facilities accepting pregnant women is common across the country.

Stone’s research also found that women were misinformed about drug testing at appointments, if they had to disclose drug use, and what doctors would do if they suspected or confirmed abuse. The women in the study also missed opportunities to address other health concerns by avoiding doctors while pregnant.

“By scaring women away from medical care and substance abuse treatment, we are worsening the health of women and their children and missing opportunities to make real, positive change for people in need,” says Stone, whose research combines her interests  in gender, crime, public health and policy.  “I feel driven to do this work because I saw injustice and felt that I could use my research to bring it to light and to help find solutions.”

While her research was conducted in Michigan, Stone said women are facing similar challenges in Massachusetts and elsewhere where opioid abuse has reached epidemic rates.

Stone recommends increasing drug treatment services for women, including those not currently pregnant, in locations close to population centers.  Many of the women she interviewed had sought treatment before becoming pregnant but could not secure help. Other steps that would help reduce barriers to treatment include providing childcare close to treatment centers, scheduling appointments around work hours, helping with transportation and prioritizing empathy over stigma, Stone says. 

“Public education about the variety of available treatment options may help women identify a program that meets their needs and help to reduce some of the stigma associated with, for example, methadone treatment. In general, we should increase funding for evidence-based, gender-responsive, comprehensive programs that support women during and after treatment,” she says.