When Utah prosecutors alleged 28-year-old Melissa Ann Rowland
murdered her unborn child, the nation reacted with a firestorm over
fetal rights, rights of pregnant women and abortion.
Rowland gave birth to a stillborn baby after refusing to undergo
a timely C-section that doctors said would have saved the her
fetus’ life. The Salt Lake County prosecutor’s office
charged Rowland with homicide or “depraved indifference to
human life.” Rowland was pregnant with twins — the
surviving twin tested positive for alcohol and cocaine and was
later sent to an adoptive family.
After prosecutors dropped the murder charge, Rowland, who has a
history of mental illness and drug abuse, pleaded guilty yesterday
to two counts of child endangerment. She could receive up to five
years in prison, court probation and admittance to a drug treatment
But, the story will not end after she has served her sentence.
The controversy 0regarding civil liberties will remain long after
Rowland’s name is forgotten.
This is the first time that a woman has been prosecuted for
refusing to have a major operation. Though 275 women have been
charged nationwide for child abuse and neglect while pregnant,
these charges have traditionally involved drug and alcohol abuse
The feminist argument and outrage over the case stems from
“a conflict in the law between the rights of the fetus and
women,” said women’s studies Prof. Anna Kirkland.
“Other people can refuse medical treatment,” she added.
“Pregnant women seem to be a special class of
Kirkland said that if a group other than pregnant women faced a
similar situation, prosecution wouldn’t even be considered.
For example, if a major operation on a father could save his
child’s life, like a bone marrow transplant, his refusal to
undergo the procedure and his child’s subsequent death would
not warrant a charge of homicide.
Prosecution of this type most likely would not occur in Ann
Arbor or Washtenaw County, becuase “there has to be a
political environment for cases like these to be filed,” any
case, Kirkland said.
“Women’s rights are too much of a priority in Ann
Arbor,” said Ronald Brown, an assistant public defender for
But the double standard held to women is not the only issue
brought to light by these charges. The National Organization for
Women, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union
have said prosecutors went too far, calling the case a back-door
effort to undermine abortion rights.
On the other hand, Jennifer Graham of the National Review
Online, cited in her column that on the prosecutorial front, the
case is “hardly groundbreaking” and follows legislative
trends, like the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear the appeal of
a woman convicted of homicide by child abuse. The woman, who gave
birth to a stillborn infant in 1999, used cocaine while
Another issue that the Rowland case raises is the idea of
medical paternalism. “Do we want to invest this much power in
doctors’ orders when they aren’t necessarily
accurate?” Rowland asked. She adds that studies have shown
C-sections are often over-recommended and that half the procedures
performed in America are unnecessary.
Graham counters with the assertion that natrual births are just
as invasive as C-sections. “Even with the incredible advances
of modern medicine,” Graham said, “pregnancy and
childbirth remain uniquely hazardous events in a woman’s life.
Even some anti-abortion advocates draw the distinction between
abortion and Rowland’s right to refuse a C-section.
“It’s a difference of choosing death, while this case
is actually about choosing how to have a baby,” said pro-life
advocate and LSA sophomore Krista Swenor.
President Bush on April 1 signed into law new protections for
the unborn that for the first time make it a separate federal crime
to harm a fetus during an assault on the mother.
“If the crime is murder and the unborn child’s life
ends, justice demands a full accounting under the law,” Bush
said. “The suffering of two victims can never equal only one
— The Associated Press also contributed to this