Assessing Stigma Towards Substance Use in Pregnancy: A Randomized Study Testing the Impact of Stigmatizing Language and Type of Opioid Use on Attitudes Toward Mothers With Opioid Use Disorder

J Addict Med. 2022 Jan-Feb;16(1):77-83. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000832.


Objective: To examine the extent to which colloquial phrases used to describe opioid-exposed mother-infant dyads affects attitudes toward mothers with opioid use disorder (OUD) to assess the role stigmatizing language may have on the care of mothers with OUD.

Methods: We employed a randomized, cross-sectional, case vignette of an opioid-exposed dyad, varying on 2 factors: (1) language to describe newborn ("substance-exposed newborn" vs "addicted baby") and (2) type of maternal opioid use (injection heroin vs nonmedical use of prescription opioids). Participants were recruited using an online survey platform. Substance-related stigma, punitive-blaming, and supportive scales were constructed to assess attitudes. Two-way analyses of variance were conducted to determine mean scale differences by vignette. Posthoc analyses assessed individual item-level differences.

Results: Among 1227 respondents, we found a small statistical difference between language and opioid type factors for the supportive scale only (F = 4.31, η2 = .004, P = 0.038), with greater agreement with supportive statements when describing injection heroin use, compared to prescription opioid use, for the "substance-exposed newborn" vignette only. In posthoc analyses, greater than 85% of respondents agreed the mother was "responsible for her opioid use," her "addiction was caused by poor choices," and that she "put her baby in danger."

Conclusions: We found no major differences in attitudes regardless of vignette received. Overall, respondents supported opportunities for maternal recovery yet blamed women, describing mothers as culpable for causing harm to their newborn, showcasing internally conflicting views. These views could contribute to ongoing stigma and avoidance of care among pregnant women with OUD.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid* / therapeutic use
  • Attitude
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Language
  • Mothers
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / drug therapy
  • Pregnancy


  • Analgesics, Opioid