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Study: Poor, Pregnant Addicts Judged Harshly By Society

Pregnant AddictsYou’ve probably heard the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Unfortunately, this saying doesn’t seem to apply to pregnant addicts, who, according to a recent study, are judged much more harshly when they are poor and pregnant than when they are well off.

Pregnant Addicts

Pain pills and pregnancy: a dangerous combination

Opioid addiction has officially been labeled as a national epidemic, with abuse rates skyrocketing across the board over the last 15 years. Pregnant women have also fallen victim to the dangers of opioids, with hospital data indicating that problematic opioid use among expectant mothers rose 127% between 1998 and 2011. Its dangers are well-documented, and include premature birth, drug withdrawal and even death.

A controversial 2014 Tennessee law aimed to curb the problem by punitive measures, making it a criminal offense punishable by up to a year in prison to use drugs while pregnant. Many doctors cried foul over the legislation, saying it only deterred addicted women from getting the care and help they need. Lawmakers eventually agreed, allowing the law to expire earlier this summer.

Facing the stigma

Based on these statistics, it is clear that pregnant women facing addiction are in dire need of help. But according to a recent Vox article, when people see a pregnant addicts, or they see media stories on newborns in drug withdrawal, they have harsh reactions. Those kinds of reactions are what can lead to support of policies like the now-expired Tennessee law.

In a randomized experiment cited in the article, study participants were more willing to work with a high socioeconomic status pregnant woman with a pain pill addiction, versus a pregnant woman with the exact same opioid problem who was described as younger and poorer.

The study created two fictional pregnant women. One was a high-school dropout in her 20s, living in government housing. The other was a 30-something restaurant manager who was a new homeowner with an MBA. Both women were struggling with the same opioid addiction, but the reactions and judgments they received from the study participants were starkly different.

Author Harold Pollack says that almost across the board, the younger, poorer addict drew tougher, more negative reactions from study participants. “In virtually every category, respondents who learned about that woman endorsed more punitive policies,” explained Pollack. “[They] expressed greater anger and disgust toward pregnant addicted women than was observed in the control group.”

Judgment-free zone

To date, the expired Tennessee law punishing pregnant addicts was the only one of its kind.  Medical professionals and advocates denounced the law, and thankfully, it expired. But studies like this one highlight that the stigma runs deep.

It continually makes doctors worry that pregnant women will be led to hide their problem, or outright refuse help.

But addiction is blind to socioeconomic status, and affects people of all incomes, race and sex – with equal destruction. In order to make progress in the fight against addiction, treatment must be more inclusive. The conversation must be easier. The stigma has to be lifted. Addiction isn’t a case of poor versus rich or good versus evil. It is a disease, and needs to be treated as such – not just by doctors and advocates, but by everyone.

If addiction has overturned your life, the team at The Watershed can offer you physical and emotional support during this struggle. Whether you’re calling for a loved one of for yourself, we have specialists who can get you the support and care you need. Contact us day or night.

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