In a case that could unleash a storm of debate about women's reproductive rights, as well as the rights of parents, the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office has charged a woman who allegedly refused a Caesarean section with first-degree murder after one of her twins was born dead.
Melissa Ann Rowland, 28, demonstrated "depraved indifference to human life" by failing to pursue immediate medical treatment, including a recommendation for a C-section, according to court documents filed in 3rd District Court.
Rowland is being held in jail on $250,000 bond. If convicted, she could face up to life in prison.
The other twin is in stable condition.
"It was her omissions that caused the death of the child," said Kent Morgan of the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office. "She was given three or four opportunities to get a C-section to save that baby. She continued to say no because she didn't want her cosmetic appearance to be disfigured."
Marguerite Driessen, an associate professor of law at Brigham Young University who has four children of her own and is pro-life, said she sees problems with a case such as this.
"My concern here is that even in Utah, where the mother has the right to make these choices, that someone other than the mother will be second-guessing these decisions," Driessen said.
"In order to bring this case, the government is making a decision to go back and re-evaluate her decisions and medical advice and decide after the fact whether there is a basis for a murder case or not," Driessen said.
For her part, Rowland, in a jailhouse interview with KSL Newsradio 1160, said she came to Utah from Florida in November to have the babies and place them for adoption because she and the birth father could not take care of the children. She denies she was advised to have a C-section with the twins and also denies she refused to have one to avoid a scar.
She said the twins were ultimately born by C-section. "I've never refused a C-section," Rowland said. "I've already had two prior C-sections. Why would I say something like that?"
Rowland said she has been in the Salt Lake County Jail for two months on child endangerment charges, which apparently stem from the same incident. The state court computer system shows a second-degree felony child endangerment charge lodged against a Melissa Ann Rowland dated Jan. 13, which is the same day cited in the murder charge.
Rowland said she has two other children who live with their grandparents in Virginia. She also said the surviving twin, a girl, has been adopted by a family Rowland knows. "She's safe and well taken care of."
Court documents state that Rowland saw a doctor at LDS Hospital on Jan. 2 who recommended an immediate Caesarean section because of fetal heart rate difficulties and a problematic ultrasound that showed the babies were not developing well, and because Rowland had very low amniotic fluid.
The doctor said in a written statement that Rowland left the hospital against medical advice and that she acknowledged her departure could result in significant brain injury or death to one or both of the babies, court documents state.
A nurse at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center also saw Rowland on Jan. 2 and said she heard Rowland say she left LDS Hospital because the doctors there wanted to cut her open "from breast bone to pubic bone," that this would "ruin her life" and that she would rather "lose one of the babies than be cut like that," court documents say.
Rowland then went to Pioneer Valley Hospital on Jan. 9 to see if the babies were alive, according to a nurse's statement included in the charging documents. The nurse could find only one fetal heartbeat and recommended that Rowland stay at the hospital, but Rowland left, the document says.
Another nurse at Pioneer Valley Hospital said that Rowland delivered twins there on Jan. 13, but one boy twin was stillborn, according to prosecutors.
Court documents further state that Dr. Edward Leis, Utah's medical examiner, performed an autopsy on the baby and found no congenital problems. He estimated the baby had died about two days earlier and said if the child had been delivered when the doctors had recommended, the child would have been alive.
Asked about a woman's right to make choices during pregnancies, prosecutor Kent Morgan said: "She didn't choose among alternative treatments available. She chose to get no treatment whatsoever."
Utah also has its share of expectant mothers who drink liquor or consume illegal drugs during pregnancy, which can cause fetal death, but Morgan said these are prosecuted in this area.
"These cases we review on a case-by-case basis," Morgan said. "If a mother causes the death of an unborn child in an unlawful way, she may well be facing murder charges."
Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said she finds the situation troubling.
"This case points out the inconsistencies in our laws, in our emotions and our feelings about parents and children, or parents and children-to-be," Galloway said. "I would remind us that a parent who has a child who is in need of an organ transplant, let's say a kidney, is not required to give a kidney to a living child. There is no repercussion for them.
"Where we feel we can make a knee-jerk reaction is mothers and the children they're carrying. We as a society believe we can make decisions for them and that's where the inconsistency comes in," Galloway said.
The case also reflects on the recent legal brouhaha surrounding Parker Jensen, the Sandy youth who was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. His parents, Barbara and Daren Jensen, doubted the diagnosis, expressed beliefs that chemotherapy would harm Parker more than help him, and battled state officials vigorously over forced chemotherapy for Parker and later, for custody of the boy.
Driessen predicts this could raise numerous legal and ethical questions.
E-mail: [email protected]; Contributing: Mary Richards, KSL Newsradio 1160.