Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Justice for Regina

I’m addicted to the Tudors. Love it. Love Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Do not love King Henry VIII. Nor do I love the incredible misogyny of the era. I mean, Anne Boleyn was hardly a saint, but even after all of her scheming I could not help but bristle at the injustice of her being blamed for failing to “produce a male heir…” or for her multiple miscarriages.

“What,” both her father and husband rail at her, “did you do to lose that baby?” Thankfully we don’t live in the 1500s…

Oh. Wait. What was that?

Well, turns out that a woman can -- in this decade -- be tried and convicted of homicide after suffering a stillbirth. Look no further than Regina McKnight.

Eight years ago, Ms.McKnight was arrested in South Carolina several months after suffering a stillbirth on the grounds that her cocaine use caused the loss. And -- despite no scientific or medical evidence that this claim was true, despite no arrest history, despite the prosecutors’ agreement that she had no intention of harming the fetus or losing the pregnancy – Ms. McKnight was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

For nearly a decade now, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and the Drug Policy Alliance have been working on this case. After losing a challenge on the constitutionality of prosecuting stillbirths under homicide statutes (!), her lawyers raised the question of whether Ms. McKnight received a fair trial. Ultimately the Court concluded that Ms. McKnight's counsel was "ineffective in her preparation of McKnight's defense through expert testimony and cross-examination."

So – after this woman spent eight years in prison -- a unanimous South Carolina Supreme Court finally reversed the homicide conviction. (Ms. McKnight will not, however, be released immediately because the State can petition for consideration and ultimately re-try her.)

I am extremely happy that Ms. McKnight’s conviction was overturned. Yet, I cannot wrap my head around the fact that she was prosecuted in the first place. I’m used to science being treated… ahem… carelessly (anyone remember the “controversy” over Emergency Contraception?) but despite the extremely problematic federal “Unborn Victims of Violence Act," ( as well as similar state laws), I’m still not -- and will probably never be -- used to homicide being applied to a fetus.

Unfortunately, what prosecutions and laws like these do – in addition to disincentivising drug-addicted mothers from seeking help – is grant independent personhood to a fetus, a very dangerous precedent with implications for women and mothers everywhere. (Note that the court’s opinion in this case makes clear that cocaine use is “no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care” and other conditions.)

Thankfully, Ms. McKnight had committed, compassionate attorneys on her side who recognized the injustice of her situation as well as a Court that ultimately listened to an aspect of reason.

If only Ms. Boleyn had similar counsel, perhaps she might have survived her own days at Court.

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