Supreme Court Will Not Review Murder Conviction of Woman Who Suffered a Stillbirth

Press Release October 5, 2003
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 510-812-3126

The U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision today not to review State of South Carolina v. Regina McKnight. The U.S. Supreme Court receives approximately 7,000 petitions asking the court to review cases each year, and only accepts about 150. The Court has stated that the decision not to take a case is not a comment on the merit of the appeal.

This case involves a young woman who 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. Regina McKnight was convicted and sentenced to 20 years – 12 to be served in state prison with no chance of parole – the first homicide conviction ever of a woman for suffering a stillbirth.

27 public health and medical groups told the U.S. Supreme Court: women who suffer stillbirths are not murderers, that there is no medical or scientific evidence that cocaine use did – or even could have – caused Ms. McKnight’s stillbirth, and that treating stillbirths as homicides undermines public health and accepted standards for medical care when pregnancy loss occurs. Nevertheless, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed her conviction in January 2003 and Ms. McKnight’s attorneys petitioned the U.S. high court to review the conviction.

Ms. McKnight’s attorneys will continue to fight for her release. They are currently working on a state habeas petition. “We will continue to advocate for Ms. McKnight and against South Carolina’s barbaric and costly policy of punishing, instead of helping, pregnant women, mothers, and children,” said Lynn Paltrow, the Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and one of Ms. McKnight’s attorneys. “We will exhaust every possible avenue in our efforts to free Regina McKnight.” The other attorneys representing Ms. McKnight are David T. Goldberg and C. Rauch Wise of the ACLU of South Carolina.

The effects of South Carolina’s attack on pregnant women have been to deter women from seeking prenatal care or delivering in a hospital and from seeking treatment for a drug problem for fear of prosecution. South Carolina ranks dead last in state spending on alcohol and drug abuse programs. Also South Carolina prosecutors have made clear their intentions to use the McKnight decision to prosecute women even if a legal substance is used.

Drug Policy Alliance, a national non-profit organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenses, submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of twenty-seven organizations supporting Ms. McKnight’s petition to the Supreme Court to hear her case. These organizations represent physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers, and public health practitioners who are concerned about the effects of Ms. McKnight’s conviction.

“Although we are deeply disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear this case we are confident that eventually the court will strike down policies that treat pregnant women with drug and other health problems as criminals. Public health practitioners and physicians agree that these policies endanger the health of women and children and that we need to ensure that all pregnant women who need drug treatment have access to those services,” said Judith Appel, an attorney with Drug Policy Alliance.

The American Public Health Association, the National Stillbirth Society, the South Carolina Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and many other organizations 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.

South Carolina is the only state where the courts have included viable fetuses within the scope of child abuse laws in an attempt to prosecute pregnant women. Charlie Condon, the state’s former attorney general, who is now running for U.S. Senate, has led the charge to punish pregnant women, including supporting a program of searching pregnant woman for drug use without their consent at a Charleston public hospital and turning the results over to police. The U.S. Supreme Court struck this program down in 2001.

“When doctors are asked to be police, it threatens 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.”

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

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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