Written by guest blogger Anita Fream
Unless you’re on a reproductive health listserv, you probably didn’t read about a recent South Carolina Supreme Court ruling concerning a woman named Regina McKnight. Ms. McKnight was convicted of homicide by child abuse in 2001 for suffering an unintentional stillbirth.
Yes, you read that right. Even though both sides in the courtroom acknowledged that Ms. McKnight had no intention of harming her fetus, because she was a cocaine user, she was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 20 years in prison with no chance of parole.
It you think that couldn’t happen here, you missed the Teresa Hernandez case right here in Oklahoma City. Late last year, Ms. Hernandez struck a plea bargain that reduced her charges from first degree murder to second degree murder because she, too, suffered a stillbirth. In Ms. Hernandez’ situation, her addiction was to methamphetamines. According to the terms of her plea bargain, she will spend the next 15 years in prison, even though, again, no one has accused her of intentionally harming her fetus.
Some find it difficult to see a drug user with any sympathy. Fine. I think we can all agree that taking drugs while you’re pregnant—and I do include tobacco and alcohol when I say this—is a bad idea.
But let’s get a couple of things straight. First, the claim that cocaine or methamphetamine use causes stillbirth—let alone a particular stillbirth—is unsupported by medical research. The South Carolina Supreme Court acknowledged exactly that in its decision last week.
Second, limiting prosecutions to illegal drugs that are favored by the poor is the height of hypocrisy. If we’re so concerned about stillbirths, tobacco users are the target we should be going after (not that I think that’s a good idea, either). So where’s the D.A. who wants to take that one on?
Third, though Teresa Hernandez’ judge shared in the courtroom that he didn’t believe the research, we do in fact know that when states maintain social policy that threatens pregnant women with arrest, their response is to avoid prenatal care. Isn’t that a no-brainer? Who’s going to volunteer to get caught using drugs and jailed for the duration of her pregnancy?
Prenatal care is one of the best things we can do to ensure healthy birth outcomes. Let’s not create public policy that drives some women away from the one thing that keeps them in the health care system where problems can be addressed.
If we want to help women in tough circumstances give birth to healthy babies, let’s offer our assistance. That should include, at the very least, access to good, safe, consistent prenatal care and drug abuse treatment options for pregnant women and women with children.