Pubdate: Sat, 16 Jun 2001
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2001 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Jeffrey Collins, Associated Press


Mom Fights Drug-Abuse Law In Court

After Conviction In Death Of Unborn Child, Ex-Addict Wants To See Policy Change

GREENWOOD -- Brenda Peppers had already lost her daughter, born dead. 
In a coma after her labor, a crack-addicted Peppers struggled to live 
and doctors had to revive her four times in six weeks.

Peppers never smoked crack again after her miracle recovery. But 
nearly two years later, prosecutors charged her with abusing her 
unborn child by taking cocaine while pregnant.

She didn't think it was fair to punish her further, but Peppers 
accepted a plea agreement at the time because she would only get two 
years' probation and could avoid the media attention of a trial. Now 
the 35-year-old Greenwood County woman is fighting the law because 
she thinks her battle can help other women.

Peppers' lawyer, C. Rauch Wise, will go before the state Supreme 
Court on Wednesday to ask justices to overturn their previous 
decision allowing prosecutors to charge women who take cocaine when 
their fetuses can live outside the womb. He plans to point out no 
other state has followed the state's lead.

The attorney general's office will argue the same reasoning still 
applies from the court's 1997 decision saying a viable fetus is 
considered a child and mothers could be charged with abuse if they 
took drugs once their unborn child could live outside the womb.

Punishing pregnant women for illegal drug use has been a sticky issue 
in South Carolina for more than a decade.

In March 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled hospitals cannot test 
pregnant women for drugs without the women's consent and then turn 
the results over to police.

"The South Carolina Supreme Court stands alone among the 50 states in 
permitting the prosecution, conviction and punishment for child 
endangerment of pregnant drug users for ingesting substances on which 
they are dependent," San Francisco lawyer Daniel Abrahamson wrote in 
a friend of the court brief on behalf of seven medical associations.

Supporters, including state Attorney General Charlie Condon, say the 
law is part of the state's efforts to protect unborn children.

"I am proud of having started this fight on behalf of innocent, 
unborn children killed through the mother's use of illegal drugs," 
Condon said when 24-year-old Regina McKnight was sentenced to serve 
12 years in prison after giving birth to a stillborn baby who tested 
positive for a cocaine byproduct.

Horry County's chief prosecutor said he tried McKnight, a mother of 
three, on homicide by child abuse charges because she should have 
known better than to take drugs while pregnant.

"Why should a viable fetus, able to live outside the womb, be treated 
any different than a month-old infant?" prosecutor Greg Hembree 
asked. "If you contribute to killing a child that can live, you 
should face the consequences."

After McKnight was sentenced, the phone started ringing at the office 
of Wyndi Anderson, the executive director of the S.C. Advocates for 
Pregnant Women.

"People across the country can't believe South Carolina can do this 
without providing a better network of drug treatment," Anderson said.

McKnight, who Anderson said has the equivalent of a sixth-grade 
education, first smoked crack cocaine the day of her mother's funeral.

"She had no mechanism to cope with her grief," Anderson said.

Anderson and other opponents of the S.C. law wonder if prosecutors 
would be as tough on a middle class woman who smokes cigarettes or 
drinks heavily.

Dr. Deborah Frank, an author of a recent study on the topic in the 
Journal of the American Medical Association, calls the state's 
prosecution of mothers who abuse drugs "irresponsible public health 
policy" and said it could mean an increase in infant mortality as 
addicted women avoid prenatal care because they fear prosecution.

Peppers does not think the cocaine she used for more than a year to 
fight depression killed her daughter, Kayla Marie Odell. Peppers had 
HELLP syndrome, a rare condition that threatens the life of the 
mother and child, according to the HELLP Syndrome Society.

Peppers said she'll be sitting in the audience when the justices hear 
her case Wednesday, determined to keep prosecutors from going after 
someone else addicted and unable to find help.

"I never want another woman to ever go through what I have had to go 
through," she said.
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