Another Brick in the Wall
This is a relatively old story (although new to me). It begins in 1999, but given the renewed push by the radical religious right to push for a ban on abortion, I think it's the right time to bring this case to the forefront once again. First, let it be known that I am utterly against giving any rights to an unborn fetus until the first breath is drawn or forced into the lungs. I've already written an article called "An Effective End to Abortion" (which you can read by clicking here— opens in a new window [Note: the Zinos site is no longer available. I will upload the article to this site as soon as I can. SS|7/13]) that details the reasons why I believe this should be the case.
In that article, I discuss a case in my own state involving a man charged with vehicular homicide for the death of an infant who, at the time of the accident, was less than 24 weeks gestation. (This is the very minimal age at which a fetus is considered "viable" even in the best of circumstances.) But the case of Regina McKnight is even more illustrative of why the unborn must have no rights before that first breath is drawn.
On May 15, 1999, Regina McKnight, 22, gave birth to a stillborn infant about eight and a half months into her third pregnancy. Ms. McKnight, whose IQ is said to be 72, is poor, black, had 2 other living children already, has never held a job and is a survivor of domestic violence. She was also, at that time, addicted to crack cocaine. An autopsy of the stillborn infant showed cocaine in the infant's system and Ms. McKnight admitted she had an addiction to crack. Ms. McKnight was quickly arrested and charged with "homicide by child abuse". Such charges were possible because in 1996, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a viable fetus fit the definition of "child" and therefore had all the same rights as any other child who was born. The doctor who performed the autopsy believed that the fetus had been dead for one to two days before the stillbirth. But the doctors at Ms. McKnight's trial could not agree on whether or not the cocaine Ms. McKnight had smoked was the cause of death. Despite this, the jury took only fifteen minutes— that's fifteen minutes— to reach a verdict of guilty, despite the fact that her first trial had resulted in a mistrial because medical testimony was so confusing that two jurors went online to research the issue.
Regina McKnight is now serving a 12-year sentence in prison. Take a guess at what the most likely sentence would have been had Ms. McKnight sought to have a late term abortion. Would you believe it would have only been about two years? Additionally, the cost of incarcerating Ms. McKnight for twelve years is going to cost far more than placing her in a drug treatment program and giving her job training and parenting classes would have cost. Nor will it deter other addicts who might become pregnant. It seems that the only one who wins in this situation is the prosecutor's office— they can chalk up another win, but it's certainly not for justice.
South Carolina is near the bottom of the list when talking about drug treatment programs, but it is near the top of the list when talking about prosecution of pregnant women for child abuse. That's not the only outrage. Racism and classism are also rearing their ugly heads since most of the women prosecuted have been poor and black. While most cases have been for the use of illegal drugs, there are advocates who want to expand that to mean smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol as well as refusal to follow doctor's orders. So what you have happening is that pregnant women, who need prenatal care as early as possible, will now be afraid of seeking such care since failure to follow a doctor's orders could result in them being prosecuted for homicide or child abuse. This is exactly what I said would happen in my article, which was written before I'd ever heard of Regina McKnight.
In late January 2003, the South Carolina Supreme Court narrowly upheld Regina McKnight's conviction in a 3-2 decision. The latest update I have on this tragic miscarriage of justice is that earlier this month (October 2003), the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. That's not deterring Ms. McKnight's supporters, but tragically, by the time the slow cogs of the justice system turn, Ms. McKnight may already be out of jail. But the fight must continue or else someone else will simply take her place until the laws are overturned.
I'm not advocating abortion: I'm advocating US society taking responsibility for allowing the perpetuation of circumstances wherein pregnant women— especially if they're poor and minority— feel they have no choice but to have an abortion. That means tackling welfare reform in earnest, tackling continuing discrimination and prejudice against women, dismantling the patently paternal judicial system, and investing in our kids through quality education, including teaching responsible parenting and providing birth control to teens without parental consent.
Until we're ready to really deal with all the underlying issues that create the need for abortion, cases like these are simply another brick in the wall that will result in the social isolation of women.
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