How penalizing substance use in pregnancy affects treatment and research: a qualitative examination of researchers' perspectives

Seema K. Shah, Leishla Perez-Cardona, Khrystyna Helner, Suena H. Massey, Ashish Premkumar, Renee Edwards, Elizabeth S. Norton, Cynthia E. Rogers, Emily S. Miller, Christopher D. Smyser, Matthew M. Davis, Lauren S. Wakschlag

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Introduction: Laws regulating substance use in pregnancy are changing and may have unintended consequences on scientific efforts to address the opioid epidemic. Yet, how these laws affect care and research is poorly understood. Methods: We conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews using purposive and snowball sampling of researchers who have engaged pregnant people experiencing substance use. We explored views on laws governing substance use in pregnancy and legal reform possibilities. Interviews were double coded. Data were examined using thematic analysis. Results: We interviewed 22 researchers (response rate: 71 per cent) and identified four themes: (i) harms of punitive laws, (ii) negative legal impacts on research, (iii) proposals for legal reform, and (iv) activism over time. Discussion: Researchers view laws penalizing substance use during pregnancy as failing to treat addiction as a disease and harming pregnant people and families. Respondents routinely made scientific compromises to protect participants. While some have successfully advocated for legal reform, ongoing advocacy is needed. Conclusion: Adverse impacts from criminalizing substance use during pregnancy extend to research on this common and stigmatized problem. Rather than penalizing substance use in pregnancy, laws should approach addiction as a medical issue and support scientific efforts to improve outcomes for affected families.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberlsad019
JournalJournal of Law and the Biosciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 1 2023


  • biomedical research
  • health law
  • human subjects research
  • regulation of research
  • research ethics


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