Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Pubdate: October 8, 2003
Author: Elmer Smith


FOR THE record, the baby's name was Mercedes McKnight. At birth, she was 5lbs., 20 oz. And dead.

Just thought I'd mention her name. Because Mercedes McKnight has been at the center of a running feud involving people and advocacy groups who care less about who she was or might have been than they care about how her death affects their pet causes.

Her name didn't come up Tuesday in the one-page ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided not to intervene in the South Carolina case that resulted in a homicide conviction against her biological mother.

I say biological because there is no evidence that Regina McKnight was in any other sense a mother to Mercedes.

Regina McKnight is serving 12 to 20 years in prison for homicide. The prosecution's theory is simple: She used cocaine while she was carrying Mercedes. Therefore, she killed her baby.

The evidence is also simple. Lab tests identified cocaine metabolites in the stillborn baby's circulatory system. And there was no evidence that the drug-addicted mother had ever sought drug treatment.

It's pretty neat. Use drugs. Your baby dies. It's homicide.

Except for this detail. There is virtually no solid evidence accepted by any reputable medical researchers that link pre-natal cocaine use with an increased likelihood of stillbirths. And expert witnesses on both sides in this trial acknowledged that they have seen babies born alive and well with the same amount of cocaine in their systems. Within weeks of Mercedes McKnight's 2001 death, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study by a team of Boston University and Harvard researchers, led by Dr. Deborah A. Frank, that concluded that there is no evidence "cocaine use by pregnant women leads to childhood devastation."

"Pre-natal cocaine exposure...has not been shown to be an independent risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome," the study concludes.

No, that finding does not rule out the possibility that cocaine use causes stillbirths. It simply says there is no evidence that pre-natal cocaine abuse affects unborn babies any more than cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana.

You don't hear about mothers being charged with pre-natal homicide for smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol during pregnancy. And you won't, even though the literature supports the conclusion that those substances are as harmful as cocaine.

But the wheels of justice accelerate to warp speed when you mention the term "crack babies."

South Carolina, where Regina Mcknight was prosecuted, has set itself up as the advocate for the unborn since 1997.

Mercedes Mcknight has become the poster child for right-to-lifers and pro-lifers and any number of ad hoc field generals in the war on drugs.

Chief among these is South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, an abortion foe who is riding a wave of popularity since his push for a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling which grants rights to fully-developed fetuses.

Since then, the state has prosecuted more mothers of crack babies than any other state. Until last year, when the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional, hospitals in South Carolina had to test pregnant women for cocaine use and report those who tested positive to police.

Regina Mcknight, a homeless drug addict, is the first person charged with homicide for pre-natal cocaine use.

Monday's non-ruling by the Supremes upheld the conviction and the record-setting sentence. It left South Carolina's 1997 fetal rights ruling intact. But it will not save the life of even one unborn child. And it does nothing for the late Mercedes McKnight.

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