March 16, 2004,
We can only speculate as to what Melissa Ann Rowland was thinking when she said allegedly, of course that having a Caesarean section to save the lives of her twins would "ruin her life."
Was she about to embark on a new career as a Penthouse pet? Model swimsuits for Sports Illustrated?
Perhaps we'll never know. Rowland still sits in her cell in Salt Lake City, where she remains jailed for criminal homicide stemming from "depraved indifference to human life," a charge sending shivers up the spines of abortion supporters across the fruited plain. (She was actually jailed in early January for child endangerment because of the drugs and alcohol in the surviving infant; the murder charge just came last week. She is due in court Tuesday on the murder charge.)
Rowland is now disputing the prevailing story that she initially refused a C-section because of "cosmetic motivations." Given that she reportedly weighs 350 pounds, maybe she's telling the truth.
And, for the record, she did eventually consent to the C-section. But the surgery came weeks after doctors told her she needed one right away, and Baby Boy Rowland was already dead when the surgeon pulled him out. The baby girl survived, albeit with cocaine and alcohol in her blood, and is now in foster care.
Now, no one wants to see a woman who just gave birth sitting in jail when she should be home nursing the surviving infant assuming, of course, that breastfeeding wouldn't ruin her life. But the drumbeat of concern this week appears to be not for the unfortunate Melissa Rowland, but for the sacred rights of pregnant drug abusers everywhere.
"It's very troubling to have someone come in and say we're going to charge this mother because we don't like the choices she made," said Marguerite Driessen, who teaches law at Brigham Young.
Uh, Marguerite? I hate to dwell on the obvious, but our whole criminal justice system is based on prosecuting people because we don't like the choices they make. Our prisons are full of otherwise lovable people who made choices that resulted in the death of a human being. (Anyone remember Susan Smith?)
Besides, this is hardly groundbreaking stuff on the prosecutorial front. In my home state of South Carolina, Charlie Condon (now running for Fritz Hollings's Senate seat), made a name for himself as a Charleston solicitor prosecuting pregnant women on cocaine. More than 100 women have faced criminal charges since 1992, when the S.C. legislature made it a felony to cause the death of a child through abuse or neglect. And the state's supreme court later held that "child" includes a viable fetus.
Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of a Charleston woman who is serving a 12-year sentence for homicide by child abuse. The woman, who gave birth to a stillborn infant in 1999, used cocaine during the pregnancy.
Meanwhile, the case of Melissa Rowland gets murkier by the day. In addition to her new denials, there are now allegations of baby selling and child abuse. Depending on whom you talk to, she has either three children, or six. None appear to be in her custody. She appears to be the kind of reckless reproducer that makes otherwise reasonable people yearn just for a minute for a Homeland Bureau of Pregnancy Licensing. Reports also suggest and this, frankly makes the most sense that she is mentally ill. Again, not someone who should be left alone with a child, nevermind children.
But let's assume, just for the heck of it, that Rowland wasn't just concerned about how fetching her naked body would look to future suitors. What if she really did fear surgery? Even with the C-section rate exceeding 25 percent nationwide, driven upward in part by women who would rather not labor, the worry warts insist on calling it "Major Surgery," and sure, there are some risks.
But as Major Surgery goes, a C-section without complications, and with a good insurer is a pretty good deal.
I have four children, all delivered surgically. Each C-section was scheduled in advance, much like a haircut. Each involved a spinal epidural (a wondrous physical sensation that is proof of a merciful God) and several days of solicitous nurses tending to my every need. What's not to like?
This is not to belittle the risks of childbirth overall. I know them well. Eighteen months ago, I hemorrhaged in the operating room, and it took eight hours of surgery and 25 units of blood from strangers to keep me alive. My baby was fine, but I spent the next week with a respirator in intensive care hardly the rollicking recovery time that I'd been eagerly awaiting. (For the record, my trauma was caused not by the C-section itself, but a bad case of placenta previa, in which the placenta grows in places God never intended.)
Those who lament the U.S. C-section rate, who wail about Major Surgery and invasive procedures, should keep in mind that pregnancy itself is an invasive procedure. As recently as 200 years again, in some hospitals, more than half of healthy women admitted for delivery died of childbed fever. And even with the incredible advances of modern medicine, pregnancy and childbirth remain uniquely hazardous events in a woman's life.
Four in 10 American women experience complications in childbirth ranging from lacerations to hemorrhage. The chance that a healthy woman will die in childbirth is still miniscule; of 100,000 births in the U.S., eight women will die. But it's estimated that half of these deaths could be prevented through early diagnosis and care. And yes, sometimes that care will include the occasional C-section. Get over it.
Maybe Melissa Rowland really was terrified at the prospect of surgery, and her doctors failed her by not adequately addressing those fears. Does fear, born of ignorance, make her less culpable for her baby's death? How do we, as conservatives, balance our desires to protect the unborn while preserving the rights of individuals and limiting the reach of government?
It's a debate that will be hindered, however, by the messiness of Rowland's life.
In an interview over the weekend, Melissa Rowland expressed surprise that her insignificant little story made the national news. After all, hey, it was just another stillborn. And really, how could we believe that she would reject a lifesaving surgery for cosmetic reasons?
Truth is, the media jumped all over this story because it was so easy to believe. Every day, we see mothers willing to put their kids second (or third or fourth) in ways that shock and repel us.
Maybe Melissa Rowland didn't refuse a C-section because it would leave a scar maybe she had no idea what she was refusing, between illness and drugs. But in America, the land of the Beautiful, we know there's someone out there who did.
Jennifer Nicholson Graham, an NRO contributor, is a writer in Virginia.