By Lacey McMurry
A woman charged with first-degree murder of her stillborn son because she reportedly refused medical advice to have a Caesarian section pleaded innocent to the charges Monday, Mar. 15. The Salt Lake District Attorney”s office filed charges Thursday against the woman, who gave birth in January to the stillborn son and his twin, a girl.
According to 3rd District Court documents, Melissa Ann Rowland, 28, showed “depraved indifference to human life” when she refused the medical treatment that could have saved the life of the infant.
“We decided to prosecute because the dead infant had no one to speak for it but the district attorney”s office,” said Kent Morgan, public information officer for the Salt Lake District Attorney”s office. “The facts fit the crime of indifference to life.”
If convicted, Rowland could serve as much time as life in prison. She is being held in jail on a $250,000 bond, Morgan said.
According to court documents, a nurse at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center attended to Rowland on Jan. 2. The nurse told officials she heard Rowland say having a C-section would “ruin her life” and she would prefer to “lose one of the babies than be cut like that.”
In an interview with KSL Newsradio 1160, Rowland denied she was ever advised to have a C-section. She also denied that she refused to have one to avoid a scar.
“I”ve already had two prior C-sections,” she told KSL. “Why would I say something like that?”
Critics of the charges argue Rowland might not have had medical procedures explained to her clearly and this might have contributed to her decision to refuse a C-section. For their part, Morgan said the District Attorney”s office has a strong case against Rowland supported by the testimonies of nearly 30 witnesses.
“If we thought there was any ambiguity in statements, we would not have filed a murder charge,” Morgan said. “Evidence in public documents supports the fact that Rowland refused to have a C-section simply for purposes of vanity.”
The court”s ruling raises some disconcerting questions about personal rights, said Marguerite Driessen, an associate professor of law at BYU.
“It”s troubling to have a woman be charged for murder because a doctor didn”t think she was an obedient enough patient,” she said. “I know I don”t want to go to jail for not listening to the doctor.”
If Rowland is convicted of murder, Driessen said a dangerous precedent would be set in the legal world. Driessen said she thinks pregnant women will become too scared to question whether the treatment the doctor has suggested is really the right thing.
Driessen said as educated medical consumers, people should have the right to consult as many physicians as they choose. If they disagree with the opinion of one doctor, they have the freedom to consult another.
“I have great respect for the medical profession,” she said. “But I am under no illusions that every doctor is perfect. I want the freedom to ignore him, if I believe that is the wisest course of action.”
Beverly Cooper, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said pregnant women should have the same rights every other woman has when it comes to making decisions regarding medical care.
“Where do you draw the line?” Cooper asked. “Will the courts be able to charge you with murder because you smoked or gained too much weight during pregnancy?”
Cooper said a woman cannot be required to give a kidney to a child or a husband who needs a transplant. Using the same reasoning, Cooper said a woman should not be forced to have a C-section.
Cooper and other advocates of women”s rights believe prosecutors are targeting Rowland because they want to advance a political agenda.
Morgan said the District Attorney”s office did not file the case simply to make a point.
“Any person who is told multiple times their child is in danger and has the resources to save them, would, in exactly the same circumstances, face the same charges,” he said.
Rowland is scheduled to appear in court today on a separate charge of child endangerment. According to The Associated Press, prosecutors said the surviving infant, who has since been adopted, had cocaine and alcohol in her system.