SALT LAKE CITY — Melissa Ann Rowland has been called callous, indifferent. The kind of mother who would refuse surgery to save her unborn twins because she didn’t want a scar. The kind who would use drugs while pregnant.
Women’s groups have nevertheless taken up her cause in the week since prosecutors charged Rowland with murder for allegedly delaying a Caesarean section and causing one of her babies to be stillborn.
The National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and others have accused prosecutors of going too far. The case, they say, is an alarming back-door effort to undermine abortion rights, an assault on the right to privacy, and an attack on a poor, possibly mentally ill person.
“Part of this assault on motherhood … is to portray certain women as selfish people without regard for their babies,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Legal experts said they do not know of any other instance in the United States in which a woman was charged with murder for refusing or delaying a C-section.
The Salt Lake district attorney’s office denied that politics are at play and said the case is not about abortion rights.
“I don’t know of anybody who rationally believes that a baby who has come to term is something a mother can destroy,” said Kent Morgan, a spokesman for District Attorney David Yocom.
Rowland, 28, could get five years to life in prison if convicted. She was jailed on $250,000 bail.
Rowland has said she never intended to kill her baby and was never informed she needed immediate surgery. She denied prosecutors’ allegations she was worried about a scar, saying she delivered two previous children through C-sections.
Her attorney has said Rowland has a history of mental illness, but he has otherwise declined to comment on the charges.
Prosecutors said Rowland acted with “depraved indifference” when she allegedly ignored doctors’ urgings to undergo a C-section to save the babies’ lives. Rowland eventually underwent a C-section, but one of the babies, a boy, was stillborn. The other baby, a girl, survived, but traces of alcohol and cocaine were found in her system.
Prosecutors brought a child-endangerment charge against Rowland over the drugs in the girl, but dropped it Tuesday. Morgan said the evidence that Rowland used cocaine during her pregnancy will instead be used to bolster the murder case.
The case may hinge on whether the baby’s legal rights trump those of his mother.
Civil liberties groups and women’s organizations said the case is an effort to reopen the battle over fetal rights and assign personhood to a fetus.
“If you personify the fetus in the law, there’s no limit on the raw power of the state to take custody of women’s bodies and punish them,” Paltrow said.
However, the district attorney’s office said Rowland’s full-term baby was not a fetus at delivery, but a child. In any case, Utah’s murder statute covers “an unborn child at any state of development.”
Around the country, there have been cases in which women were forced to undergo C-sections after their doctors obtained court orders. There have also been cases of women charged with murder for harming their babies through drug use.
Mary Mahowald, a professor emerita at University of Chicago in the department of obstetrics and gynecology, said the fact that a mother may have a moral obligation to care for her fetus does not give the state the right to force her to undergo a certain course of treatment.
Critics also warned that prosecuting women for drug use during pregnancy will drive them away from prenatal care, and said the case raises questions for pregnant women who smoke or fail to follow their obstetrician’s eating recommendations.