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Supremes Reject Baby Death Conviction Appeal
October 6, 2003 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Top Court Rejects Baby Death Conviction Appeal
"The U.S. Supreme Court rejected on Monday an appeal by a South Carolina woman convicted of homicide and sentenced to 12 years in prison for causing her baby to be stillborn by using cocaine."
posted by jpoulos (47 comments total)

 
I wonder if the man who slept with her goes to jail for getting a cocaine addict pregnant.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:59 AM on October 6, 2003


Uh oh. This is actually a terrible precedent.

In the appeal, McKnight's lawyers said no other court in the nation had upheld a conviction of a pregnant woman under any general criminal statute on the premise that her conduct caused harm to her fetus. They also argued that the law was too vague and violated due process rights.

The lawyers said the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment does not allow a court to punish a pregnant woman as a murderer based on a finding that her conduct contributed to a stillbirth.

National and South Carolina associations of physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers and public health practitioners supported McKnight's appeal.

They warned the South Carolina law could be applied to pregnant women who suffer a stillbirth if they have smoked cigarettes or worked in a factory with a danger of exposure to hazardous waste.

posted by jokeefe at 10:18 AM on October 6, 2003


Interesting. My first thought was regarding the abortion battle. Since it's okay to abort, are you criminally negligent if you do crack within the first couple months of your pregnancy, sober up for the last seven months, and still end up with a stillborn?

Same goes with alcohol, cigarettes, etc...if you are an addict of any of these substances, sober up for the last few to several months of your pregnancy, and still end up with a less than healthy child, can you be held liable for negligence?
posted by BlueTrain at 10:26 AM on October 6, 2003


...or a woman who rides in a car without a seatbelt? or eats at McDonald's? or gets an abortion?

Talk about "keep your hands off my body". IANAL, but this looks like it has serious implications for abortion law.
posted by jpoulos at 10:29 AM on October 6, 2003


Er, I was referring to "They warned the South Carolina law could be applied to pregnant women who suffer a stillbirth if they have smoked cigarettes or worked in a factory with a danger of exposure to hazardous waste". BlueTrain sneaked in between.
posted by jpoulos at 10:31 AM on October 6, 2003


This is a weird precendent. My mom smoked and drank(moderately) when she was pregnant with me. I have a history of learning disabilities, substance abuse and poor social skills. Can I charge Mom with assault?
posted by jonmc at 10:31 AM on October 6, 2003


Booyah! Maybe some pro-abortionists will give their heads the necessary shake and realize that it's never okay to kill a baby, ever... even in utero.
posted by timbley at 10:37 AM on October 6, 2003


Oh, timbley, you're so right. I've been so wrong what with my insistence on my privacy and a right to the sanctity of my own body. Thanks to you and the SCOTUS, I feel all fresh and new.

Or, shut the fuck up.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 10:49 AM on October 6, 2003


He disagrees with you (and me, for that matter) but he has every right to state his opinion without being bullied, littlemisscranky.
posted by jonmc at 10:55 AM on October 6, 2003


Bullshit, timbley. I'm a supporter of post-natal abortion.

cue the abortion "debate"
posted by angry modem at 10:56 AM on October 6, 2003


I wonder how they can really do this, because stillbirths can happen for many reasons or no known reason at all - how can they prove that it was the cocaine that definitively caused the stillbirth in this case? She might have had a stillbirth anyway, cocaine or not.
posted by beth at 11:06 AM on October 6, 2003


Sorry jonmc, but anybody who pulls out the "now you'll all come to your senses and see I was right all along" gets the smackdown.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 11:07 AM on October 6, 2003


timbley: What if a woman has a miscarriage or gives birth to a stillborn child but hasn't been doing cocaine? Should I search out possible reasons (smoking, drinking, abuse of other drugs)?

Is this only applicable when there's a publically documented drug abuse case? If not, there may be a legal burden to search out cases where drug abuse may be responsible for birth defects. Maybe we should have a questionaire for women who have stillborn children: "Did you do any illegal or unprescribed narcotics during your pregnancy?" Yeah, that'll go over real well with grieving women.
posted by mikeh at 11:09 AM on October 6, 2003


Why stop there, jpoulos? Let's jail women for not exercising enough, or exercising too much, or for being to old, or too small, or for having a history of miscarriages, or not taking folic acid every day from the time that they turn 16.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 11:18 AM on October 6, 2003


Sorry jonmc, but anybody who pulls out the "now you'll all come to your senses and see I was right all along" gets the smackdown.

Would you still say that if you agreed with him? Just askin'
posted by jonmc at 11:24 AM on October 6, 2003


Probably not. But I'd expect it from someone who didn't.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 11:27 AM on October 6, 2003


Before this devolves into AbortionFilter, remember: this particular court case has nothing to do with abortion. The verdict could affect abortion legislation and rulings. So there's no need to jump on the "abortion is bad/acceptable" bandwagon, since there's a lot more to this case to worry about. Like where we draw the line on what constitutes violence or murder when the supposed victim isn't born.

What LittleMissCranky said.

And jonmc: I would like to think that knee-jerk sniping like timbley's statement is ridiculous, no matter who does it. There are extremes on many issues, and the majority who hold those beliefs don't want to associate with anyone who throws out logic and civility.
posted by mikeh at 11:30 AM on October 6, 2003


What happens if you are aware of a woman who is pregnant and abusing drugs, but don't take any steps to prevent her behavior or seek help for her. Are you aiding and abetting?
posted by arha at 11:33 AM on October 6, 2003


He disagrees with you (and me, for that matter) but he has every right to state his opinion without being bullied, littlemisscranky.

And, as follows, she has the right to tell him to shut the fuck up. Not that he has to, but she can still tell him.

Isn't freedom fun?
posted by kayjay at 11:33 AM on October 6, 2003


And, as follows, she has the right to tell him to shut the fuck up. Not that he has to, but she can still tell him.

Yeah. But I hate watching pile-ons. It's too lord of the flies for my taste. something in me always wants to stick up for the pile-onee even if I disagree with them. which then leads to all kinds of inner conflicts.

excuse me.

*grabs yellow pages, looks for shrinks, finds they're all out of his price range, looks for bars instead*
posted by jonmc at 11:38 AM on October 6, 2003


actually, politically speaking, the stfu gambit makes me think of protestors who "shout down" speakers they disagree with which always struck me as a cowardly way of avoiding debate.

plus everything i said above. i'm babbling. jonmc, shut the fuck up.
posted by jonmc at 11:42 AM on October 6, 2003


it's never okay to kill a baby, ever... even in utero

Unless you're God, of course. God kills babies in utero all the time.

timbley, on a more serious note - I'm fairly sure she wasn't actually trying to kill her baby. She's most likely an addict. Addiction is an uncontrollable urge to do something, even if you know its bad for you.

"compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance ... persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful"


By your reasoning, if I trip and fall down the stairs (inducing miscarriage) I'm guilty of manslaughter. If my partner and I have a history of miscarriage, I'm committing a sin by trying to get pregnant again, knowing as I do that there is a 9 in 10 (or better) chance that this pregnancy, too, will end in miscarriage. If I take a certain medication before I know I'm pregnant, and it induces an early-term miscarriage, I'm doing something wrong.

Pregnancy ends all the time, for quite literally millions of different reasons. Every fetus is not destined to be carried full term. Its the way the process works. Something like 50% of pregnancies miscarry before the fetus even implants into the uterine lining.

And while I know that "pro-abortion" sounds good in the literature, I've never yet met anyone who was actually "pro-abortion" in the same way that you are "pro-life" - I've never seen anyone protesting outside an obstetrician's office , for example, with signs encouraging pregnant women to have abortions rather than carry to term. I've never been handed a flyer encouraging me to have an abortion, and I've never seen any legislation come through even my local city council prohibiting me from carrying a child to term if that's what I choose to do.
posted by anastasiav at 11:51 AM on October 6, 2003


how can they prove that it was the cocaine that definitively caused the stillbirth in this case?

My thoughts exactly. There are too many variables involved to comfortably find out what was to blame for the death, especially since many babies are born alive to cocaine using mothers, and many babies are stillborn to drug-free mothers. Seems like a scary precedent to me - I can see this leading to things like jail time for pregnant women who don't eat properly (I used to work for a man who said more than once that he thought pregnant women who smoked should go to jail - he blamed everything from umbilical cord strangulations to any other problem on smoking or second hand smoke...the man had issues).
posted by biscotti at 12:38 PM on October 6, 2003


He disagrees with you (and me, for that matter) but he has every right to state his opinion without being bullied, littlemisscranky.

He has the right to call pro-choice people "abortionists," and as such I reserve the right to tell him to shut up for sounding like an asshole.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 1:40 PM on October 6, 2003


he has every right to state his opinion without being bullied

Pro-abortionists? Did you really expect such pejorative terminology to elicit a civil response?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:27 PM on October 6, 2003


Getting back to the issue, I don't think this case will have any impact on abortion rights, unless you're trying to abort your child by ingesting large amounts of cocaine. Abortion will remain legal until the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade and the states pass laws outlawing it.

It may seem odd to consider a fetus a "person" for the purposes of certain laws and not for others, but there's nothing unconstitutional or even irrational about it. It is very possible to be pro-choice and also be in favor of charging people who knowingly murder pregnant women with a double-murder. You simply have to believe that there is enough government interest in protecting fetuses to punish people other than the mother for trying to kill it, but recognizing an exception for the mother because of her considerable interest in controlling her own body.

By the same token, you could favor the right to abortion and also favor the South Carolina law by making a distinction between a deliberate choice (i.e. exercise of autonomy) to terminate a pregnancy and gross recklessness in caring for a fetus that you intend to bear to term. You can make a compelling case that the former should be constitutionally protected while the later can be subject to state regulation, including criminal penalties.

I personally think the Carolina law is stupid and reflects yet another misguided attempt to punish drug users rather than treat them. But, despite the inevitable proclaimations of victory in the pro-life camp, I don't think that pro-choice advocates have anything to worry about here.
posted by boltman at 3:10 PM on October 6, 2003


Oh, timbley, you're so right. I've been so wrong what with my insistence on my privacy and a right to the sanctity of my own body. Thanks to you and the SCOTUS, I feel all fresh and new.

Or, shut the fuck up.


Hey! You're a genius! I bow to your wisdom. I hope one day I can be privileged enough to have you tell me to shut the fuck up!

By the way, what the FUCK is sanctified about sticking a saline solution up your vagina and burning a fetus to death? Or for that matter, what is sacred or sanctified about using pliers to rip apart that fetus' small body when it is still in utero? Or pulling just the head out and using scissors to sever its spinal cord? Privacy? Sanctified? I want what you're smoking. Or you could try being responsible and use contraceptives.

Now go play in traffic you worthless excuse for a coherent argument maker.
posted by insomnyuk at 3:31 PM on October 6, 2003


I don't think this case will have any impact on abortion rights, unless you're trying to abort your child by ingesting large amounts of cocaine

I don't know about cocaine, but ingesting large amounts of alcohol to provoke it is not unheard of.

The cheers from the pro-life camp come from the fact that, little by little, they're jamming in the-fetus-is-a-person concept.
posted by magullo at 3:59 PM on October 6, 2003


Mmm... yes. Stick to coherent and rational arguments using terms such as "sticking a saline solution up your vagina and burning a fetus to death" before telling people to go run into traffic. Wouldn't want anyone to think you're a complete nutcase or anything.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:13 PM on October 6, 2003


*claps and wipes a tear*

That was beautiful, insomnyuk.

Interesting how Timbley's pro-life pitch was immediately taken as Christian dogma... "God", "sin".... anastasiav, Timbley never mentioned any of these in his post.

The running argument here seems to be... how can you conclude with certainty that the fetus died due to the drug. It's called an autopsy. This case would NEVER hold up in court if SEVERAL certified, competent physicians didn't testify to confirm with absolute assurance that the death was drug-induced.

I wonder what mefites would have to say about this one. Keep in mind, there's barely a ten-day difference between this and the other newborn. "Death due to crack smoke... hmmm... what if there are OTHER causes... clearly the mother can't be guilty..."
posted by degnarra at 4:18 PM on October 6, 2003


I'm still somewhat undecided about abortion (from a personal standpoint-- I think it should be legal), mainly because I haven't decided on the is-a-fetus-a-person angle yet, though I'm leaning towards the Bill Hicks "Not every ejaculation deserves a name" approach.

(Warning: Awful, awful joke ahead. In tiny print so you can avoid it easier.)

Before this devolves into AbortionFilter

AbortionFilter-- Is that the thing they use to strain off the placenta so the fetus is dry when they cook it?

(I'm sorry. Really. But I thought of that as soon as I saw AbortionFilter, and I had to share that moment with you.)

posted by nath at 4:43 PM on October 6, 2003


what the FUCK is sanctified about sticking a saline solution up your vagina

insomnyuk, settle down. You're not helping yourself.

Or you could try being responsible and use contraceptives.

Contraceptives fail, bucko. Even Norplant and sterilization have small but significant failure rates. Around 58% of women who have abortions used some form of birth control.

Once, just once, I'd like to meet a male person who can have a conversation about abortion without resorting to a) profanity or b) insults. But I've yet to have it happen.

You are totally entitled to think I'm committing a sin if I choose to have an abortion, but to legislate against abortion would take your concept of 'sin' and enshrine it as 'law' - two very different things.

There is a Pentecostal website that offers up the following bit of wisdom: "A crime is a sin, but not every sin is a crime" - and not every sin should be a crime.

I am entitled by law not to believe in your god, or share your notion and definition of what 'sin' is. I have the freedom to believe something different than you believe (to believe, for example, that a 9 week old fetus does not have a soul or a personality and isn't a "person" by any reasonable definition).

Sin is often described as "the transgression of the law" (as laid out by God in the Old and New Testament). And, while "You Shall Not Kill" is certainly one of the commandments, it is important to remember that nowhere in either of these books does it lay down anything like "thou shall not tear your unborn child from thy womb" ... an important distinction, considering how specific some of the other prohibitions are ("thou shall not make molten idols" for example). The fact is, ancient - and even colonial people - did not, by and large, consider the termination of pregnancy a sin. They believed the soul entered the body at the moment known as "quickening" - the moment the mother could feel her unborn child move for the first time. If you're interested in historical perspectives on this topic I highly recommend a book called Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. The idea that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception is a peculiarly modern idea. Victorian laws outlawing abortion had far more to do with male control of their "product" than it did of any notion that a fetus was a person.

On Preview
anastasiav, Timbley never mentioned any of these in his post

True, but I've yet to run up against an argument for criminalizing abortion that did not, in the end, bump into the single argument of "its a sin". Murder is a crime not because the Bible (or Koran, or Talmud, take your pick) prohibits it (although they do), but rather because without laws against murder, and the threat of punishment for murderers, society would devolve into anarchy. The fabric of our continued ability to interact with one another would be rent. The continued legalization of abortion carries no such risk.
posted by anastasiav at 4:56 PM on October 6, 2003


And the USA takes another stride down the path to oblivion.

I thought freedom was the byword of America. More and more, it is not.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:46 PM on October 6, 2003


Well, the powers of the state increase exponentially once again--there is something to applaud. Another excessively punitive sentence is upheld, from a conviction under a law that, like Prohibition, like all drug laws, is intended for for those people, not us.

It will, of course, be applied almost exclusively to the poor and black, the people who least can afford competent legal defense, applied to them all out of proportion to their percentage of the population. At a cost of fifty, sixty thousand a year per inmate, we need more people in prison. We need more of the iron hand smiting the utterly powerless, more of Big Police Powers Government. That's what makes this country great.
posted by y2karl at 7:40 PM on October 6, 2003


y2kark - angry words well spoken (in my opinion)

Meanwhile, "....Once, just once, I'd like to meet a male person who can have a conversation about abortion without resorting to a) profanity or b) insults. But I've yet to have it happen." - ( anastasiav )

Hello. It's a painful topic.

I participated in an abortion decision once (as the potential father). That decision seems more painfull now - in retrospect - than it did at the time. I was less aware then - and I don't think that I participated equally in the experience although I was given an equal part in the decision. Later on, the potential mother regretted it a lot -I still have mixed feelings. But I still support abortion rights (strongly).
posted by troutfishing at 7:52 PM on October 6, 2003


Once, just once, I'd like to meet a male person who can have a conversation about abortion without resorting to a) profanity or b) insults. But I've yet to have it happen.

anastasiav, here you go: I'm male, and I support the right to abort an unborn child until the 3rd trimester, or if it threatens the life of the mother.

There you go. A conversation, about abortion, from a male, with no profanity or insults. Hey, that was easy!

In the future, would you please put more thought into all-encompassing derisiveness that, frankly, is aimed at the wrong demographic.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:57 PM on October 6, 2003


insomnyuk :By the way, what the FUCK is sanctified about sticking a saline solution up your vagina and burning a fetus to death?

Now go play in traffic you worthless excuse for a coherent argument maker.

An inflammatory statement is not a coherent argument. Looks like you'll be playing in traffic all by your lonesome self.

As mentioned earlier, contraceptives fail. Taking antibiotics while on the pill is the first thing that comes to mind. The second is diaphragm slippage, which can be caused by vigorous intercourse or due to a woman's weight gain/loss which causes the diaphragm to no longer fit properly.

In addition to what others have stated, women can be taking medications that are tetragenic(?) like Accutane during the early stages of pregnancy, before they're even aware that they're pregnant. With the line of reasoning laid out by Carolina and, by extention, SCOTUS, it's not inconcievable that a woman in this situation could be convicted of criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter if she gives birth to a horribly deformed infant who is DOA. Reproductive rights aside, I'm really uncomfortable with the idea that the government could/should be involved in making judgement calls about what I believe should be addressed as a medical, not criminal, issue.
posted by echolalia67 at 9:08 PM on October 6, 2003


how can you conclude with certainty that the fetus died due to the drug. It's called an autopsy. This case would NEVER hold up in court if SEVERAL certified, competent physicians didn't testify to confirm with absolute assurance that the death was drug-induced.

This isn't actually true - there is no way to determine that the drug (which she took days beforehand) caused the stillbirth and not any number of other factors. More info here. To quote: "At the first trial the state's "experts" testified that they could not say for sure that cocaine caused the stillbirth. That trial ended in a mistrial. At the retrial, the same "experts," without any new evidence now claimed they were sure that the cause of the stillbirth was the cocaine. One of the doctors testified that "cocaine in and of itself can kill you" after only one use. He was forced to concede however that he did not have any medical knowledge that would support this assertion and that, in fact, the sole basis for this opinion was popular press accounts about the death of basketball player Len Bias. The state's case really rested on the claim that since they could not identify the cause of the stillbirth . . . it must have been cocaine. They made this diagnosis by exclusion without having done the tests and examinations that could have ruled out many more likely causes."

Cocaine can cause stillbirth, but there is no way to determine that in this case, it was the cause and not malnutrition, lack of medical care or any of the other factors which were present here, and which can also cause problems (and many stillbirths can never be explained accurately anyway).
posted by biscotti at 11:34 PM on October 6, 2003


If they put the woman anyway without conclusive proof, as you stated, biscotti, then may faith in the system is shot. And yes, I really did have some microscopic amount of faith left.

Maybe these "experts" didn't have the knowledge/experience to make such a conclusion but the truth is, death due to cocaine overdose CAN be determined.

Check this out.
posted by degnarra at 5:02 AM on October 7, 2003


In the future, would you please put more thought into all-encompassing derisiveness that, frankly, is aimed at the wrong demographic.

I wasn't trying to be derisive, just truthful, but you are correct that I was tired and didn't quite say what I meant to say.

What I meant to say was: "Once, just once, I'd like to meet a male person who believes abortion should be criminalized with whom I can have a conversation about abortion without resorting to a) profanity or b) insults. But I've yet to have it happen." Sorry if I insulted you, Civil_Disobedient. I guess I thought the intent of the comment was clear from the context of the post.

troutfishing, thank you also for sharing your story. I'd give you a hug if you'd let me.
posted by anastasiav at 6:43 AM on October 7, 2003


death due to cocaine overdose CAN be determined.

We have a misunderstanding here - I never argued that cocaine overdose couldn't be determined, I argued that cocaine cannot be definitively shown to be the cause of this stillbirth (not least because there were other factors harmful to unborn babies present). Stillbirths are notoriously difficult to ascribe causation to at the best of times, and there's often no way to determine which of a host of factors is ultimately responsible (or, as seems likely (especially in this case), if it's a combination of things). Therefore, in the absence of any clear-cut link between the cocaine use and the stillbirth (the fact that cocaine CAN cause stillbirth doesn't mean it DID in this case), I find it frightening that this woman is locked up without any real facts to indicate that she should be. It's yet more war on drugs idiocy.
posted by biscotti at 8:25 AM on October 7, 2003


This would have been a black woman who got convicted, right? I'd lay odds on it -- 'cause the US justice system would never convict a white on the same charges.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:36 AM on October 7, 2003


This would have been a black woman who got convicted, right?

She's not only black, but she's poorly educated (described in one article as "borderline mentally retarded") and poor. She's got the trifecta.
posted by biscotti at 12:17 PM on October 7, 2003


She's not only black, but she's poorly educated (described in one article as "borderline mentally retarded") and poor. She's got the trifecta.

(cynic)Well, at least she wasn't sentenced to death. 'Cause I kinda would've expected that.(/cynic)
posted by nath at 12:52 PM on October 7, 2003


I'd lay odds on it -- 'cause the US justice system would never convict a white on the same charges.

Exactamondo. Note she was tested and turned in by the nurses at the hospital--one of my first jobs out of college was janitoring at at the local county hospital. The medical staff there had nothing but the most utter contempt for what they considered to be the dregs of society. If you make your decisions about any given race or ethnic group based upon the bottom feeder members you meet, you will end up sounding worse than a Klansman when you vent about work--I hear this sort of shit over and over from my friends who drive a bus for Metro Transit.

Oh, those nurses would be falling over themselves to excuse someone who made the same money they did and looked like them because she'd then be one of us, not one of them. If people insist on having laws like this, then they should be applied equally to all. Let there be mandatory drug testing for every mother in hospital delivery. Let every mother testing positive be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and given the maximum sentence. Send enough coke snorting white yuppie super moms to the pokey for ten plus years and that law would vanish faster than a drop of water dropped in a hot frying pan.

And while we're on the topic, note that today, in the Science section of the New York Times, it is reported that a mother's diet can turn on genes in her offspring in utero. Scientists have long known there was a relation between obesity, incidences of cancer and diabetes and the mother's diet when pregnant but until now did not know the biological process involved.

Now, with this law, poor people can be prosecuted for eating poorly--they didn't buy organic vegetables, they didn't take multi-vitamins, they didn't seek the care of an expensive obstetrician, those selfish welfare babymakers, and we have to pay for it! Let's stick them all in jail for twelve years. It can be another unfunded mandate of the unacknowledged 24/7 class war the haves wage on the have nots.Let no child [at a private school] be left behind!

Let's stick to the people at the bottom--that's the feel good way we got to be such a great and noble nation.
posted by y2karl at 1:19 PM on October 7, 2003


Well then, why don't we just sterilize all the poor people?

Dear skallas, please don't call me a troll.
posted by insomnyuk at 12:49 AM on October 8, 2003


troll.
posted by jpoulos at 6:17 AM on October 8, 2003


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