On Monday, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of Regina McKnight. The State of South Carolina prosecuted McKnight because she took cocaine while pregnant and gave birth to a stillborn child. A jury convicted her after 15 minutes of deliberation; she was sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison. According to her lawyers, McKnight’s conviction is the first time a woman has been convicted of homicide after giving birth to a dead child. Women’s rights advocates argue that a state’s ability to charge and imprison a woman because she ingests substances while pregnant that may or do harm her fetus has enormous and dangerous ramifications for a woman’s ability to control her body while pregnant.
McKnight’s appeal argued there are factual questions as to whether the cocaine was even the cause of the death of her child. It is very difficult to determine a single cause for a stillbirth and McKnight had other health conditions that are associated with fetal death. Her appeal also argued that her imprisonment was cruel and unusual punishment. Briefs filed in support of McKnight’s appeal showed that South Carolina’s prosecution of pregnant women make women afraid to get health care while pregnant.
South Carolina has a history of remarkably punitive measures against pregnant women. In March 2001, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a South Carolina program that tested pregnant women without their consent for drugs and arrested them for child abuse if they tested positive.