27 Public Health and Medical Groups to U.S. Supreme Court: Women Who Suffer Stillbirths Are Not Murderers

Press Release July 28, 2003
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 510-812-312

Twenty-seven organizations consisting of physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers, and public health practitioners have joined together to file an amicus curiae brief today urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review State v. McKnight- a South Carolina case that resulted in the first homicide conviction of a woman for suffering a stillbirth.

“If the Supreme Court does not review and overturn this case, the thousands of women who suffer stillbirths could be charged with murder if some prosecutor disapproves of their behavior — even legal behavior — during pregnancy,” said Judith Appel, an attorney with Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that represented the amici in their brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Regina McKnight suffered a stillbirth in 1999 and was charged with homicide by child abuse after an autopsy revealed cocaine metabolites in the stillborn child’s system.

She was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in state prison. Advocates for Ms. McKnight have maintained her innocence, providing extensive medical and scientific evidence that her cocaine use did not cause the stillbirth. In fact, nothing in the record links cocaine use to the stillbirth. Nevertheless, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed her conviction in January, and Ms. McKnight is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case.

South Carolina prosecutors have made clear their intentions to use the McKnight decision to prosecute women even if a legal substance is used. South Carolina ranks dead last in state spending on alcohol and drug abuse programs.

The American Public Health Association, the National Stillbirth Society, the South Carolina Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and many other organizations (listed below) signed on to this brief out of concern that the McKnight decision will transform health care professionals into law enforcement agents. Doctors and nurses are now being encouraged to notify state authorities if they suspect that their pregnant patients have engaged in any activity that, according to the McKnight standard, is “publicly known” to harm fetuses. This may very well criminalize any potentially harmful prenatal activity that precedes a stillbirth or miscarriage — from drinking alcohol or inhaling second hand smoke to taking prescription medications or having a cup of coffee.

“When doctors are asked to be police, it can actually threaten the health of pregnant women by driving them away from crucial medical care,” added Ms. Appel. “This practice violates every protocol for treating both pregnant women and people who have experienced the tragedy of stillbirth.”

Drug Policy Alliance is a national organization that promotes alternatives to the War on Drugs.

Groups Submitting Amicus Brief to The U.S. Supreme Court Include:

American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry

American Nurses Association

The American Psychiatric Association

American Public Health Association

American Society of Addiction Medicine

Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs

Association of Reproductive Health Professionals

Black Women’s Health Imperative

Citizens for Midwifery

Doctors of the World-USA

Finding Common Ground

Global Lawyers and Physicians

The Hygeia Foundation Inc.

Institute for Health and Recovery

Midwives Alliance of North America

NAADAC-The Association for Addiction Professionals

National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health

National Association of Social Workers Inc.

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence

National Stillbirth Society

Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy

Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health

South Carolina Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors

South Carolina Medical Association

South Carolina Nurses Association

South Carolina Primary Health Care Association

Women’s Law Project

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