Criminalization of Pregnancy: A Case Study of Race, Class, and Gender

Paula Rector, Northern Arizona University

For the first time in U.S. history, in 2001, a woman was convicted of homicide by child abuse for using crack cocaine that authoritie believed caused her late term fetus to die. Regina McKnight could have receied life in prison, but was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Unfortunately many aspects of McKnight's story are not unique. Like other women whose pregnancy behaviors have been criminalized, she is a poor, African-American woman. mcKnight is also from South Carolina, a state that leads the nation in pregnancy behavior prosecutions. Although the liuterature on the criminalization of pregnancy is growing, there have been few projects exploring actual empirical examples. This paper will detail some of the major findings that emerged from analysis of the recent case against McKnight. To understand this landmark criminal court case, I conducted a historical case study. I utilized feminist perspectives to analyze the impact of race, class, and gender in the McKnight case, as well as to explore the broader institutional and social climate in South Carolina that contributed to punitive responses to pregnant drug users. I then outline the ways that the McKnight case both reinforces and challenges the existing literature on the criminalization of pregnancy.

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Updated 05/20/2006