I have been reading about the McKnight case in which the US Supreme Court on Monday, October 6, 2003, refused without comment to hear an appeal of Regina McKnight’s homicide conviction. McKnight was convicted of murder and sentenced to 12 years in prison by South Carolina courts under a 1992 child abuse and neglect law that the court interpreted to include a viable fetus. McKnight was prosecuted “after drugs were found in the system of her stillborn daughter.”
The story posted on CNN’s Internet web page reports that “McKnight’s lawyers say she is borderline mentally retarded and lived with her mother until her mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1998. McKnight quickly became homeless, addicted to drugs and pregnant.” The story also states that more than two dozen medical and public health organizations backed McKnight’s Supreme Court appeal, and that prosecution of women in her circumstance would discourage pregnant addicts from seeking care and treatment.
In addition, McKnight’s lawyers pointed out that other actions by pregnant women (smoking, medications, stress, and certain types of jobs) can contribute to stillbirths, leaving pregnant women in jeopardy of criminal prosecution and imprisonment for murder if their child is stillborn. Under the implications of this precedent, it would not be unreasonable for the state to investigate all stillbirths and spontaneous abortions to see if there were grounds for prosecuting the woman involved as a murder suspect.
Realistically, although McKnight’s actions may have caused the death of her baby, she may have had very little control of any aspect of her life and very little chance of making any good decisions for or about herself or her baby. In my opinion, a charge of manslaughter would serve both the law and the humanitarian and philosophical issues well, and a charge of homicide is not warranted.
I agree that the state has a compelling interest in protecting the child’s life, but I do not think that interest is served by charging this woman with homicide. It would be better served by treating her drug addiction as an illness and providing her with medical care. Women with diabetes frequently have stillborn children if their blood sugar is not closely controlled, but it would not have made these judges look like champions of “right to life” if they had prosecuted a diabetic woman (borderline retarded or not) whose child was stillborn because of her diabetes.
This case is not a proper test case for legalizing or criminalizing abortion or for the testing of fetal rights laws. The woman is not typical of women who might consider abortion, or in fact of any person — male or female — who might “consider” anything at all. If she is in fact “borderline mentally retarded,” she didn’t plan anything more than a week in advance, had little concept of cause and effect if the effect did not immediately follow the cause, and would have been able to take care of herself only in a well-established and highly structured context. She could not make complex philosophical judgements in unfamiliar situations.
The humanitarian and philosophical issues around this case are not about fetal rights. They are rather about how we treat as a society with the actual needs of individuals. This is a story about the failure of the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, and the failure of our educational system to address the needs of people whose intellectual capacity is not “above average,” as all of us should be.
Addiction is an illness that needs to be treated. Poverty — as in having no money – is a circumstance over which poor people have little control. Intelligence is variable. We all know those three things. What should disturb us is that in the United States if a person over 18 is not too bright and doesn’t have any money, that person has very little chance of finding medical care, counseling, training, a clean place to sleep, or any number of things that are available to similar populations in most civilized countries.
I believe that to justify homicide, the court should have to show intent. It is not enough to rule that someone “should have known.” Also, I have heard it said that this woman will be better off in prison than on her own on the street. Perhaps that is true. Probably it is true. It is an even greater shame for our system to state that the only way we can take care of people who can’t take care of themselves is to put them in prison. That said, a charge of manslaughter would have put her in prison just as easily as a charge of homicide if that were the goal.
Regarding the implications of this ruling for all pregnant women in South Carolina and in other increasingly “pro-life” communities, this interpretation adds fear of criminal prosecution to the already significant stresses and worries of pregnancy and threatens encase women in a narrow but vague definition of “safety” that can always be re-defined after the fact.
The argument at this point is not about the baby. It is about who has control of women. If we have choice, we have some degree of self determination. This is why there is no good law regarding a woman’s right to choose except one that guarantees her right to choose. The only reason for denying a woman the right to choose is the idea, common to the religious right, that women are morally inferior and unable to make good choices, i.e., have to be controlled by men, who have more “moral fiber.” This idea is just ignorant. It goes back to that thing with the apple.
There is no future for any of us in trying to pass laws to make women have babies they can’t take care of and don’t want. I believe that first we recognize women as people who do have a right to choose, then we work on finding a way to make that choice before we make the baby. What we need is a way to choose whether or not to become pregnant in the first place, which would certainly cut down on the demand for abortions. Oops, here I am back to health care… That is where I always end up. I am pro-choice, but I am not pro-abortion.