The good news is that Utah has dropped murder charges against Melissa Rowland, who rejected her doctors’ advice to undergo an immediate Caesarean section and gave birth to a stillborn boy and a girl who tested positive for cocaine. The bad news is that she has accepted a plea to two counts of child endangerment for using drugs during pregnancy and faces a possible five-year sentence. Whatever one calls it, this is what we’ve come to in America: failure to produce a live, healthy, non-drug-exposed baby can land you in prison.
Stillbirth is a tragedy. Drug use during pregnancy is a terrible idea. But should they be crimes as well? Admittedly, Melissa Rowland is not exactly a poster child for pregnant women’s rights. Early news reports, which are all most people have heard, made her sound frivolous and vain: She refused the operation, we were told, because she thought the scar might diminish her sex life (she denies having said this and points out that her two older children were born by C-section, as, finally, were the twins). In the public eye, Rowland is a monster mother: sexual, selfish, whimsical, like Susan Smith, who drowned her kids supposedly to win back a wealthy boyfriend, or the anonymous women whose newborns are found frozen to death in dumpsters.
The truth is, Rowland is a deeply troubled woman: mentally ill, estranged from her family, sometimes homeless; she was confined to a mental hospital at 12, bore twins at 14, has tried to kill herself twice; four years ago her daughter was placed in foster care after Rowland was convicted of child abuse for punching her in a supermarket. Her boyfriend, father of the second set of twins, abandoned her before the birth (although the two took the drugs together, he was never charged with anything). A supporter, Lorna Vogt of the Utah Progressive Network, says Rowland told her that the reason she was in Utah in the first place was that she had been brought to Salt Lake City from Florida by an adoption agency to deliver the babies and give them up. (Utah has lax adoption laws, and apparently this practice is not uncommon.) Rowland also said she was living in a hotel room on a $100 weekly allowance from the agency and was treated with hostility by doctors and nurses–who called the police when she left the hospital instead of instantly submitting to surgery. In other words, Rowland lacked everything a pregnant woman should have: support, security, understanding, respect. That she is said to have described C-section as “being gutted from breast bone to pubic bone” suggests to me that she was terrified.
Assistant DA Langdon Fisher says the prosecutors dropped the murder charge because Rowland was mentally ill. Maybe. But perhaps they were also affected by the unexpected storm of controversy. “They went after a vulnerable woman because she was an easy target,” Vogt told me. “They thought they’d make some headlines.” And so they did. Pregnant drug users don’t get much sympathy from the public, but the specter of women forced under the knife against their will, compelled by law to risk their lives and health despite their own judgment, is one many women can relate to. As Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) points out, doctors are often wrong about the need for C-sections, as you might expect in the country with the highest rate of Caesareans in the world–nearly one in four births, twice the proportion recommended by the World Health Organization. Granted, Rowland may not have had this statistic at her fingertips, but the point at issue in the murder charge remained whether pregnant women are people or vessels: Can they decide what is done to their bodies, what risks to take, or not? And what’s next? Will women who miscarry or whose babies are born dead or sickly be jailed for smoking or drinking during pregnancy? For failing to follow doctor’s orders on diet or bed rest? For choosing a home birth?
Now for the moment those slippery slope arguments have been set aside, and we are back with what is becoming an American tradition: arresting poor women for illegal drug use during pregnancy. For the past eight years, South Carolina has been charging women, mostly poor and black, with child abuse if they deliver babies who test positive for illegal drugs; the Supreme Court recently refused to hear the appeal of Regina McKnight, who is serving twelve years in maximum security for “homicide by child abuse” after delivering a stillborn baby who tested positive for cocaine. If you think what happens to a poor black drug user with an IQ of 72 doesn’t apply to you, think again: In its 1997 decision in Cornelia Witner v. State of South Carolina, the state Supreme Court decreed that anything a pregnant woman does after viability that causes “potential harm” to the fetus is child abuse–anything.
The prosecutor denied that the murder charges against Rowland had anything to do with abortion politics. NAPW’s Paltrow, who argued the McKnight case, agrees: This is about the rights of pregnant women to decide on their medical care. Still, it is hard not to connect Rowland’s case with the ongoing spate of antiabortion legislation and the disrespect for women’s decision-making powers it fosters. The resistance of antichoicers to health exceptions on abortion restrictions says it all: God forbid a woman with multiple sclerosis should get an abortion to avoid paralysis! Recently in a challenge to the partial birth abortion ban brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Dr. Watson Bowes testified in support of the ban that he opposed all abortions unless the chance that a woman would die was greater than 50 percent.
Melissa Rowland’s case is one that never should have happened. Instead of arranging her auto-da-fé, whether for murder or child endangerment, the State of Utah should be asking itself how it can improve services for poor, pregnant, mentally ill substance abusers–and maybe take a look at adoption agency practices, too. When doctors and nurses take the time to know their patients and treat them with empathy and respect, patients usually follow their advice. It’s good that Utah has decided that when doctor and patient disagree, the last word has to be hers, even though sometimes she will be wrong, as sometimes the doctor is wrong. After all, it’s her body–for now.