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Woman Is Convicted of Killing Her Fetus by Smoking Cocaine

A News Analysis By Terence T. Gorski
Related To Stopping Drug Use During Pregnancy

May 30, 2001 

Summary:  Women in America should be seriously concerned about a recent court decision that convicted a 24 year old Regina McKnight of Conway, S.C., of homicide by child abuse for killing her unborn fetus by smoking crack cocaine and sentenced her to 12 years in prison .  Conflicting medical testimony did not stop a jury from convicting McKnight after fifteen minutes of deliberation.  Accurate information about addiction, medical intervention, and treatment was never presented to the jury.  Although on the surface this decision seems to protect unborn children from drug-crazed addicted mothers, the potential consequences to the rights and liberties of women and families could be devastating.  It places addicted and mentally ill women at extreme risk.  Read the details.

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Women in America should be seriously concerned about a recent court decision that convicted a 24 year old Regina McKnight of Conway, S.C., of homicide by child abuse for killing her unborn fetus by smoking crack cocaine and sentenced her to 12 years in prison .  

Women in America who are pregnant and members of families planning to have children should be seriously concerned by this legal decision.  As you read the following news analysis of the McKnight Case and the complete article published in the New York Times that follows, remember that scientific research has validated three major  findings regarding the treatment of addiction that were not even mentioned in this case:

1.         Punishment Doesn't Stop Addicts From using Drugs:  Punishment or threat of punishment will not deter addicted women who are addicted from using drugs.  Addiction is a brain disease that creates overwhelming biochemical cravings.  

2.         Instilling A Fear Of Punishment Can Hurt Women & Unborn Children:  Fear of punishment can have three paradoxical effects:  It can intensify the craving for alcohol and drugs; it can motivate dishonesty with their physician during prenatal visits; and it can cause women to stop prenatal care to avoid detection and punishment.  It will also .

3.        Medical Intervention For Addiction Works Better:  Medical interventions for addicted mothers have been proven to reduce substance abuse in pregnant women and lower birth problems in addicted mothers.  Effective medical intervention programs are based upon proper prenatal care administered by a medical team that has been trained to identify substance abuse, intervene in the addiction process, and refer to non-punitive treatment that is monitored in conjunction with other interventions.  Legal intervention are only used when other attempts at interventions have failed.  The primary goal is to help the woman and her unborn child by treating the addiction, not by punishing the addict. 

These facts were never presented to a jury or publicized in the media.  Without this the above information it only took the jury fifteen minutes to convict Regina McKnight and sentence her to twelve years in prison for killing her unborn child.

Here are the reported facts in the McKnight case:

1.         McKnight was eight and a half months pregnant when she delivered the stillborn baby in May 1999.  

2.         The media demonized McKnight as a drug-crazed cocaine addict who murdered her unborn child.  They did not present the public with accurate information about the nature of addiction or the effectiveness of medical intervention and treatment in stopping drug use during pregnancy.

3.         The media did not discuss the serious implications this case has for all women in America, not just those who abuse drugs. 

4.        The medical experts who testified could not confirm that McKnight's cocaine use was the cause of her still birth.  Four doctors testified at McKnight's trial and gave differing opinions as to whether her addiction to crack caused the baby's death.  

5.         No other woman has ever been prosecuted for the death of their fetus.  Previous attempts have been thrown out by the courts because of the many possible reasons for stillbirths.  In most cases there is no way to clearly identify that drug abuse caused the still birth.

6.         This ruling was made possible by a 1997 South Carolina Supreme Court precedent that upheld the conviction of a woman who had been charged with child abuse for using cocaine during her pregnancy.  The court ruled that a viable fetus was considered a person under the state's criminal code. The ruling was the only one of its kind in the country.

7.        The precedent established by the McKnight case does not restrict those "harmful substances" to cocaine or other illegal drugs.  The precedent can easily be expanded to include beverages containing alcohol, prescribed psychiatric medications including antidepressants, and the use of other medications for the treatment of other illnesses that could endanger the fetus.

 8.        McKnight's conviction creates a precedent that could subject all women having still births to criminal investigation for homicide and risk or prosecution and incarceration if they used any substance during pregnancy that could have been harmful to the fetus including legal prescription drug or other medication.

9.        The precedent puts additional burdens on pregnant women who are physically or psychiatrically ill and require medication during pregnancy.  Addicted and mentally ill women are especially vulnerable, but so are women with other physical illnesses making difficult medication decisions during pregnancy.

10.       This precedent expands police power into the private lives of women and their doctors to an unprecedented and dangerous degree.  Having a still birth is an emotional trauma for all women.  Require that all women having still births to submit to a homicide investigation will increase this emotional trauma and create fear of the legal system that could adversely affect the health of the mother and child.

Although on the surface this decision seems to protect unborn children from drug-crazed addicted mothers, the potential consequences to the rights and liberties of women and families could be devastating.  As with any legal precedent,  we need to be concerned about the law of unintended consequences.  We need to think about the potential implications to the freedom and civil rights of all people and think of how the legal precedent could be used as a basis to develop oppressive laws that do more harm than good.  All people of good will, especially women should be seriously concerned about the McKnight Case and it's long-term consequences to women and families in America.

The following is the New York Times Article by David Firestone

Terry Gorski and other member of the GORSKI-CENAPS Team are Available To Train & Consult On Areas Related Stopping Drug use During Pregnancy
Gorski - CENAPS, 17900 Dixie Hwy, Homewood, IL 60430, 708-799-5000 www.tgorski.com, www.cenaps.com

Woman Is Convicted of Killing Her Fetus by Smoking Cocaine

By DAVID FIRESTONE

May 18, 2001 

ATLANTA, May 17, 2001 — A 24-year- old South Carolina woman has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing her unborn fetus by smoking crack cocaine. Legal experts said it was the first such homicide case in the country.

A jury deliberated 15 minutes on Tuesday before convicting the woman, Regina McKnight of Conway, S.C., of homicide by child abuse. She was eight and a half months pregnant when she delivered the stillborn baby in May 1999. Four doctors who testified at her trial gave differing opinions as to whether her addiction to crack caused the baby's death.

In 1997, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a woman who had been charged with child abuse for using cocaine during her pregnancy, ruling that a viable fetus was considered a person under the state's criminal code. The ruling was the only one of its kind in the country. Previously, other efforts to prosecute women for the deaths of their fetus have been thrown out by the courts because of the many possible reasons for stillbirths.

Greg Hembree, the prosecutor in the McKnight case, said he decided to bring her to trial by extending the court's decision to homicide.

"If the child had been smothered by its mother two weeks after being born, there'd be no question about prosecution," Mr. Hembree said. "The only difference here is, this was two weeks before the child would have been born. It is still part of a parent's fundamental responsibility to protect children."

Critics said the state was on shaky legal ground by punishing women for the outcome of their pregnancies.

Ms. McKnight's public defender, Orrie West, said she would appeal.

Mr. Hembree acknowledged that future cases could involve women whose pregnancies ended after they drank too much alcohol, or consumed other legal substances with knowledge that they could be harmful such as prescribed antidepressant medications.

Noting that Ms. McKnight is pregnant again, he added: "I know for sure that her baby isn't going to die from crack cocaine this time. That's one thing I know."

Terry Gorski and other member of the GORSKI-CENAPS Team are Available To Train & Consult On Areas Related To Stopping Drug Use during Pregnancy
Gorski - CENAPS, 17900 Dixie Hwy, Homewood, IL 60430, 708-799-5000 www.tgorski.com, www.cenaps.com

 

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