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^U.S. High Court denies appeal in fetus abuse case
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court Tuesday let stand an unprecedented ruling that upheld the convictions of two pregnant, drug-using women by redefining a state child-abuse law to include a viable fetus.
The justices denied an appeal by the two women who were arrested, charged and sentenced under the law. The women said the South Carolina Supreme Court's ruling undermined fundamental constitutional rights and will have far-reaching implications.
The controversy dated back to 1989, when South Carolina attorneys began applying the state's child endangerment law to pregnant women whose conduct posed a risk to fetal health.
The appeal involved Cornelia Whitner, 34, who was indicted, pleaded guilty and then sentenced to eight years in prison for smoking crack cocaine while pregnant. Her baby was born with traces of cocaine in its system.
Whitner served 19 months in prison, but was freed after a lower court judge ruled that the state's child abuse laws did not apply to a fetus.
That decision was overturned by a sharply divided South Carolina Supreme Court, which declared that the child abuse and endangerment law does include viable fetuses.
The ruling marked a radical departure from a series of decisions by state high courts, all of which have rejected efforts to prosecute pregnant women for alleged drug or alcohol use.
The other case involved Malissa (eds: correct) Ann Crawley, 36, who was charged with child neglect because of her drug dependency during pregnancy. She pleaded guilty and was placed on five years of probation.
Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights represented the two women in their Supreme Court appeal.
Their basic legal argument was that the state court ruling violated the constitutional guarantee of due process notice and the constitutional prohibition against vague criminal laws.
The lead attorney in the case, Lynn Paltrow, warned of the consequences of the South Carolina court ruling.
``It will hurt those women who, because of fear of arrest, may not seek the prenatal care that could significantly improve maternal and fetal health, women whose medical decisions may now be construed as endangering fetal health,'' she said.
Supporting the appeal were a number of medical, social services and substance abuse treatment organizations, which said the case should be heard to avert ``widespread and serious harm to pregnant women.''
They said the ruling would endanger the lives of women and would discourage pregnant addicts from seeking medical help.
But South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon defended the law, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison, and urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal.
The high court sided with Condon, denying te appeal without any comment or dissent. The action by the justices does not create nationwide precedent.