Screening for alcohol and drug use in prenatal care is widely promoted in the United States as a public health strategy for reducing alcohol and drug use during pregnancy. However, the published literature does not consider women’s perspectives or the potential negative ramifications of screening.
Twenty semi-structured interviews and two focus groups [n=38] were conducted with a racially/ethnically diverse sample of low-income pregnant and parenting women using alcohol and/or drugs in a northern California county.
Most women were averse to having drug but not alcohol use identified and were mistrustful of providers’ often inconspicuous efforts to discover drug use. Women expected psychological, social, and legal consequences from being identified, including feelings of maternal failure, judgment by providers, and reports to Child Protective Services. Women did not trust providers to protect them from these consequences. Rather, they took steps to protect themselves. They avoided and emotionally disengaged from prenatal care, attempted to stop using substances that could be detected by urine tests prior to prenatal care visits, and shared strategies within social networks for getting the benefits of prenatal care while avoiding its negative consequences.
Considerations of the public health impact of screening for drug use in prenatal care should account for the implications of women’s physical avoidance of and emotional disengagement from prenatal care, specifically the direct effects of late, limited, and no prenatal care on pregnancy outcomes and missed opportunities for health promoting interventions.