Regina McKnight is doing twelve years in prison for a stillbirth, carving out a dangerous intersection between the drug war and the antichoice movement. In the eyes of the South Carolina Attorney General’s office, McKnight committed murder.
Her crime? Giving birth to a five-pound, stillborn baby. As McKnight grieved and held her third daughter Mercedes’s lifeless body, she could never have imagined that she was about to become the first woman in America convicted for murder by using cocaine while pregnant.
The absence of any scientific research linking cocaine use to stillbirth didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that the state couldn’t conclusively prove that McKnight’s cocaine use actually caused Mercedes’s stillbirth. What mattered was that South Carolina prosecutors were hellbent on using McKnight as an example.
Thanks largely to the efforts of the former Republican Attorney General, Charlie Condon, now running for US Senate, South Carolina is the only state in the nation with a child-abuse law that can be applied to “viable fetuses.” At least 100 women have subsequently faced criminal charges in the past fifteen years for using drugs while pregnant in that state, according to the Post and Courier (Charleston). South Carolina was also the first and only state to test pregnant women for drug use and report the findings to police without the woman’s consent–or a warrant–until the US Supreme Court struck down this bill as a violation of the Fourth Ammendement.
But McKnight, now 26, was the first to be imprisoned on a murder conviction under the “viable fetuses” law. In October McKnight lost her best shot at release when the Supreme Court decided not to review the case, allowing the conviction to stand by default.
“What South Carolina has done, in effect, is made pregnancy a crime waiting to happen,” says Lynn Paltrow, an attorney and the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women in New York.
Paltrow served as one of the attorneys who took the appeal to the nation’s highest court. In so doing, she joined twenty-seven other medical and drug policy groups that sought to overturn the conviction, including the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. These mainstream health organizations saw the situation exactly for what it was: an extreme manifestation of an increasingly successful antichoice agenda wrapped in the cloak of the War on Drugs.
“The prosecution, conviction, and sentencing of Ms. McKnight for her stillbirth not only distorts the law, but contradicts the clear weight of available medical evidence, violates fundamental notions of public health, and undermines the physician-patient relationship,” as the organizations put it in their amicus brief to the Court.