Fear and judgement of pregnant drug-using women: what are the consequences?

Jeanne Flavin, a sociologist at Fordham University, and Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director at National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), have recently published an article that draws upon hundreds of cases compiled by NAPW to “highlight the injustice of expecting low-income and drug-dependent pregnant women to provide their fetuses with the health care and safety to which women themselves are not deemed to be entitled.”

In the first part of the article, they explore the concept of fetal rights, moral panic over pregnant women who use substances, media portrayal of drug-dependent women, and the broader context of the US war on drugs.  In the second half of the article, the authors propose three principles that should guide policy responses to pregnant drug-using women. These principles are:

  1. Rely on the best available research rather than flawed assumptions about drug use by pregnant women and its effects
  2. Distinguish, as we do with alcohol, between use and addiction and recognize that drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing health condition rather than a crime; and
  3. Provide support for low-income pregnant women rather than rely on policing and punishment.

This article was published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Addictive Diseases.  This special issue focused on “Women, Children, and Addiction” and included articles on the history of women and addiction, ethical issues, infant and toddler outcomes, and medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine.


Flavin, J. and Paltrow, L.M. (2010). Punishing pregnant drug-using women: defying law, medicine, and common sense. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 29(2): 231-244.

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