COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CWN) – South Carolina’s state Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the child abuse conviction of a woman who took drugs while she was pregnant. The court ruled that Cornelia Whitner’s conviction for child neglect in 1992 is valid because child abuse laws do apply to unborn children if they can survive apart from their mother. Whitner was sentenced to eight years in prison after her newborn tested positive for cocaine, but a judge freed her 19 months later, saying child abuse laws do not apply to prenatal actions.
The state’s highest court had already upheld the sentence in July 1996 after an appeal from South Carolina’s attorney general, but the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups asked the court to reconsider. The ACLU argued that the ruling violated the state’s right to privacy laws because the woman was punished for taking the baby to term, but could have avoided punishment for not having a legal abortion. However, the justices dismissed that argument. “It strains belief for Whitner to argue that using crack cocaine during pregnancy is encompassed within the constitutionally recognized right of privacy,” Justice Jean Toal wrote in the majority decision. “Use of crack cocaine is illegal, period” she added.