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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Public Health

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Aline Gubrium

Second Advisor

Thomas Leatherman

Third Advisor

Elizabeth Evans

Subject Categories

Maternal and Child Health | Other Anthropology | Women's Health


Opioid-related fatalities in the U.S. have increased drastically. Pregnant women and mothers with opioid use disorders (OUD) are a rapidly growing and vulnerable population. Using a critical narrative approach, this dissertation examines how the syndemic of trauma, substance use, and mental health conditions influences opioid use and treatment trajectories among pregnant women and mothers across the lifecourse. The goal of this dissertation was to examine three discursive resources that shape the social construction of perinatal and maternal opioid use across all strata of social life: macro-level (news media), meso-level (scientific), and micro-level (individual) narratives. Informed by 18-months of ethnographic observation, in-depth interviews, and mixed methods analysis of scientific research and news media coverage of perinatal and maternal OUD, this research brings together the voices of women in recovery, clinicians, social workers, policymakers, and the public. Building from what Sanders (2014) refers to as the “gendered double standard” faced by women with substance use disorders, in this dissertation I characterize the intersecting identities of female, pregnant/mother, and substance user as a gendered triple standard. Throughout this work I argue that being held to this gendered triple standard intensifies the stigma faced by pregnant women and mothers with OUD as they navigate the medical, legal, and social service institutions. Key findings from this research include: (1) a predominating focus on “fetal victimhood” (Knight, 2015), which overlooks the needs of pregnant women and mothers with OUD that run concurrent to ensuring a healthy pregnancy and birth; (2) approaches to addressing the opioid “crisis” that elide key at-risk populations (e.g. People of Color, active substance users, and polysubstance users); (3) “folk” pharmacokinetic knowledge and practices utilized by pregnant women and mothers that function as both facilitators and barriers to treatment engagement; and (4) the traumas associated with institutional policies and procedures specific to the management of opioid use (e.g., practices associated with civil commitment to treatment, loss of custody, and intergenerational family separation via the criminal justice and/or foster care systems). Informed by key findings, this dissertation concludes with five specific recommendations for research and practice.