DPA PR: 26 Public Health and Medical Groups to U.S. Supreme Court: Women Who Suffer Stillbirths Are Not Murderers

March 14, 2006

26 Public Health and Medical Groups to U.S. Supreme Court: Women Who Suffer Stillbirths Are Not Murderers

South Carolina Prosecutors Want Homicide Trials for Stillbirths That Follow Any Conduct "Publicly Known" to be Harmful to Fetus

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

For Immediate Release:
Contact: Tony Newman
Tuesday, July 29, 2003
510-812-3126

26 Public Health and Medical Groups to U.S. Supreme Court: Women Who Suffer Stillbirths Are Not Murderers

South Carolina Prosecutors Want Homicide Trials for Stillbirths That Follow Any Conduct "Publicly Known" to be Harmful to Fetus

Court Urged to Review South Carolina Case That Sets "Dangerous Precedent" and Jeopardizes Doctor-Patient Relationship

Twenty-six organizations consisting of physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers, and public health practitioners have joined together to file an amicus curiae brief today urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review State v. McKnight- a South Carolina case that resulted in the first homicide conviction of a woman for suffering a stillbirth.

"If the Supreme Court does not review and overturn this case, the thousands of women who suffer stillbirths could be charged with murder if some prosecutor disapproves of their behavior - even legal behavior -- during pregnancy," said Judith Appel, an attorney with Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that represented the amici in their brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Regina McKnight suffered a stillbirth in 1999 and was charged with homicide by child abuse after an autopsy revealed cocaine metabolites in the stillborn child's system. She was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in state prison. Advocates for Ms. McKnight have maintained her innocence, providing extensive medical and scientific evidence that her cocaine use did not cause the stillbirth. In fact, nothing in the record links cocaine use to the stillbirth. Nevertheless, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed her conviction in January, and Ms. McKnight is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case.

South Carolina prosecutors have made clear their intentions to use the McKnight decision to prosecute women even if a legal substance is used. South Carolina ranks dead last in state spending on alcohol and drug abuse programs.

The American Public Health Association, the National Stillbirth Society, the South Carolina Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and many other organizations (listed below) signed on to this brief out of concern that the McKnight decision will transform health care professionals into law enforcement agents. Doctors and nurses are now being encouraged to notify state authorities if they suspect that their pregnant patients have engaged in any activity that, according to the McKnight standard, is "publicly known" to harm fetuses. This may very well criminalize any potentially harmful prenatal activity that precedes a stillbirth or miscarriage -- from drinking alcohol or inhaling second hand smoke to taking prescription medications or having a cup of coffee.

"When doctors are asked to be police, it can actually threaten the health of pregnant women by driving them away from crucial medical care," added Ms. Appel. "This practice violates every protocol for treating both pregnant women and people who have experienced the tragedy of stillbirth."

Drug Policy Alliance is a national organization that promotes alternatives to the War on Drugs.

Groups Submitting Amicus Brief to The U.S. Supreme Court Include:

American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry
American Nurses Association
The American Psychiatric Association
American Public Health Association
American Society of Addiction Medicine
Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs
Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
Black Women's Health Imperative
Citizens for Midwifery
Doctors of the World-USA
Finding Common Ground
Global Lawyers and Physicians
The Hygeia Foundation Inc.
Institute for Health and Recovery
Midwives Alliance of North America
NAADAC-The Association for Addiction Professionals
National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health
National Association of Social Workers Inc.
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
National Stillbirth Society
Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy
Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health
South Carolina Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors
South Carolina Medical Association
South Carolina Nurses Association
South Carolina Primary Health Care Association