ReconsiDer Tidbits


From the New York Times... May 24, 2001
IN AMERICA

Stillborn Justice
By BOB HERBERT
    
    Two years ago Regina McKnight of Conway, S.C., was 22 years old, homeless,
addicted to cocaine, possibly mentally handicapped, and pregnant. When she
gave birth on May 15, 1999, the infant was stillborn.
Here's how South Carolina, a state with a long history of backwardness, dealt
with this tragedy: Regina McKnight was convicted of homicide and sentenced to
12 years in prison.
Ms. McKnight smoked crack while she was pregnant, and an autopsy showed
evidence of cocaine in the infant's system. The doctor who performed the
autopsy believed that the fetus expired a day or two before the delivery,
which occurred eight and a half months into the pregnancy.
Doctors who testified at the trial did not agree on whether Ms. McKnight's
addiction was the cause of death. Nevertheless, a jury deliberated only 15
minutes before finding her guilty of homicide by child abuse.
In South Carolina's system of criminal justice a viable fetus is considered a
person. This allows the authorities to wage open warfare on pregnant women
who do not behave as the authorities would like. Virtually any behavior that
could potentially harm the fetus can be prosecuted as criminal child abuse. A
pregnant woman who smokes, drinks, uses legal or illegal drugs or even fails
to follow a doctor's orders is at risk of prosecution for child abuse or
murder.
Most of the cases so far have involved women who used illegal drugs, although
there are people who would like to extend these perverse prosecutions to a
wide variety of other categories.
Ms. McKnight's was the first case of homicide by child abuse to be brought
before a jury. Other cases have ended with plea bargains. Greg Hembree, the
prosecutor whose office handled the McKnight case, said he wanted to show the
public ?" and "particularly those women who were addicted who may get
pregnant" ?" that "there's some consequences for your actions."
He said, "If you kill a child by showing extreme indifference to human life
then you're guilty of homicide by child abuse, just like the guy who's guilty
of murder."
In South Carolina, the authorities have trouble distinguishing between a
woman who experiences a stillbirth and John Gotti.
Naturally these cases are selectively prosecuted. The defendants are
overwhelmingly poor and almost exclusively black.
Regina McKnight needed help, not a prison sentence. Her I.Q. was reported to
be 72, but people who know her believe it is even lower. Growing up she
attended classes for the "educably mentally handicapped." She had three
children she was unable to care for, was never able to hold a job, had been
victimized by abusive men, and turned to drugs three years ago when her
mother died. Humane intervention was called for, including intensive
counseling, job training and, especially, treatment for drug addiction.
But we're talking about South Carolina, which trails virtually all other
states in the availability of drug treatment but is leading the pack in the
prosecution of pregnant women.
Even Mr. Hembree acknowledged that the idea of sending drug-addicted women to
prison when there is a desperate shortage of treatment for their addiction is
problematic. "There is not enough money ?" there aren't enough resources ?"
committed to drug and alcohol treatment," he said. "I mean I couldn't agree
more. I see the tragic results of that every single day."
What is happening in South Carolina is cruel and inhumane. The fetal rights
movement, which is being used across the country to undermine abortion
rights, is being aimed in South Carolina specifically at women who are poor
and, in most cases, black.
Determining the exact cause of a stillbirth is often extremely difficult. The
real cause often remains a mystery. And yet, as Lynn Paltrow, who heads a
group called National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said: "You now have a
state that says we can treat a stillbirth as murder."
The jurors needed only 15 minutes to convict Regina McKnight because there
wasn't much need to worry about the intricacies of the charge of homicide.
This was South Carolina, after all. She was certainly guilty of having those
babies and doing those drugs. And in South Carolina, that was enough.

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