Women Can Be Convicted of Homicide for Risky Behavior during Pregnancy
After Regina McKnight delivered a stillborn baby in 2001, prosecutors speciously linked the baby’s death with McKnight's cocaine use and promptly convicted her of homicide – a conviction that American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys are seeking to overturn. McKnight now faces 12 years in prison. This unprecedented conviction means that women must be the guarantors of pregnancy outcomes, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) reports. “The pregnant woman who ‘allows’ herself to be battered and the woman who misses prenatal care appointments are both now vulnerable to prosecution,” the NAPW press release reports. The case is expected to be appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The Chief Prosecutor for Horry County explicitly stated that “the fact that it happened to be an illegal substance” did not determine McKnight’s conviction; rather, “Even if a legal substance is used, if we determine you are medically responsible for a child’s demise, we will file [homicide] charges,” reports The Sun News. McKnight’s ACLU lawyer argued that this interpretation of the law means that pregnant women can be convicted of homicide if they deliver a stillbirth and had smoked a cigarette, had a drink, engaged in strenuous physical activity, or taken prescription medicine, reports KaiserNetwork.org. Furthermore, doctors and nurses are now being encouraged to report pregnant patients to the police if the medical staff suspects that the woman is engaging in potentially harmful behavior, the Drug Policy Alliance reports.
Twenty-two-year-old McKnight turned to drug use after falling into depression when her mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1998. Lacking access to grief services, substance abuse intervention, and adequate pre-natal education, McKnight could not have known that “having a drug dependency co-occurring with pregnancy would be treated as murder,” according to NAPW. Had McKnight sought an illegal third-trimester abortion, her sentence would have been two years instead of 12.
Media Resources: Journal of American Medicine 3/2001; Philadelphia Daily News 10/8/03; National Advocates for Pregnant Women press release 5/27/04; Drug Policy Alliance Press Release 7/29/04; KaiserNetwork.org 7/30/04, 5/30/03