Contextual influences on the perception of pregnant women who use drugs: Information about women’s childhood trauma history reduces punitive attitudes

Brianna C. Delker, Amanda Van Scoyoc, Laura K. Noll

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Punitive attitudes and consequences (e.g., incarceration) for prenatal illicit drug use persist in the United States despite evidence that these policies are ineffective and even harmful to women and children. For instance, the threat of these consequences can deter women from seeking healthcare, prenatal care, and drug treatment. Punitive responses may persist due to pejorative public perceptions of pregnant women who use illicit drugs. Although there is evidence that contextual information about prenatal drug use (e.g., drug type) can change such perceptions, other contextual influences are unknown. This experimental study tested whether receiving contextual information about a pregnant woman who uses drugs (specifically, her childhood trauma history) reduces punitive and increases supportive attitudes toward the woman. In a vignette-based 2(pregnancy status: pregnant/not pregnant) x 2(history of childhood trauma: interpersonal/non-interpersonal) between-subjects design, young adult university participants (N = 461) were randomly assigned to read a vignette about a woman who uses methamphetamine. Punitive attitudes were significantly reduced by information that the pregnant woman had a history of childhood trauma, especially interpersonal (versus non-interpersonal) trauma (ηp 2 = .115). Supportive attitudes were not impacted (ηp 2 = .005). Information about the pregnant woman’s trauma history predicted less agreement with incarcerating her, only indirectly, through less punitive attitudes (R2 = .21). Reductions in punitive attitudes were on the order of 1.5–2 points on 5-point self-report scales and controlled for participant gender and political conservatism. Results have practical implications for interdisciplinary work aimed at unlocking greater support for policies that help pregnant women make safe, informed decisions with dignity and access to healthcare.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-123
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Trauma and Dissociation
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Childhood trauma
  • attitudes
  • prevention
  • social perception
  • substance use
  • women’s health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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