The story is tragic. The death of anyone is awful, but the death of an infant strikes us harder than any other. They’re helpless and pure, and when an infant dies, there’s a visceral need to blame. Infants aren’t supposed to die. And certainly not at their mother’s breast.
It was 3 a.m. and Samantha Whitney Jones’s 11-week-old son was crying.
So, Jones did what many mothers would do: She sat down and tried to breastfeed him.
About five hours later, her baby would be dead. The cause of death, prosecutors say, was a “lethal combination of drugs” ingested through Jones’s breast milk.
Jones, 30, was charged with criminal homicide and held on $3 million bail, because she might have made $2.9 million and walked free.
Jones doesn’t look like a killer, but rather a sad drug addict. Then again, what difference would it make if she looked like Charles Manson, it having nothing whatsoever to do with whether a crime occurred. Of course, irrelevant things like appearance matter.
The charge raises two very different questions. The first and most obvious is whether a mother on methadone breastfeeding her baby is murder. Is there any malevolence involved? Should this act result in criminal culpability at all? Clearly, the loss of a child is devastating to a mother, and she will be punished without regard to what the legal system can do to her, but should the legal system do anything?
The nature of a crime is the commission of conduct that is prohibited. In this case, the conduct would be breastfeeding while on methadone (as well as other drugs). There is no statute expressly prohibiting such conduct, but it can be culpable under a mens rea below intentional.
§ 2501. Criminal homicide.
(a) Offense defined.–A person is guilty of criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another human being.
(b) Classification.–Criminal homicide shall be classified as murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter.
Was this foolish, so dangerously so, as to constitute negligence? Possibly, but then did Jones have any appreciation of the potential risk?
According to a 2008 article published in Canadian Family Physician, a peer-reviewed journal, women using methadone as part of medical treatment should not be discouraged from breastfeeding.
“The benefits of breastfeeding largely outweigh any theoretical minimal risks,” the article states.
What are the chances Jones reads the Canadian Family Physician? Do you? Even if she did, it says “discouraged,” not that a mom on methadone is going to kill her baby. “Discouraged” is hardly a warning of impending death. * Edit: So the journal says “not discouraged”? That almost sounds as if medical science says it’s not an issue.
Which brings us to the second question: did Jones’ methadone-infused mother’s milk kill her baby at all?
However, stimulant drugs such as amphetamine or methamphetamine are thought to “concentrate in breast milk and may cause irritability and disturbed sleep in babies,” according to the Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Australia. The hospital advises women not to breastfeed for 24 to 48 hours after using those types of drugs and emphasized the importance of pumping and dumping tainted breast milk.
Some journals say it’s possible, even “thought to” be a danger. This may suffice for a “best practices” warning, but is it sufficient to prove a cause of death? It’s happened before.
In 2002, California mother Amy Prien was charged with second-degree murder after the coroner’s office confirmed that her 3-month-old son overdosed on methamphetamine, which entered his system through breast milk. She pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2006. In 2012, another California mother was sentenced to six years in prison after her 6-week-old baby died after ingesting breast milk that also contained methamphetamine. In 2014, Stephanie Greene was given a 20-year prison sentence in South Carolina for the death of her 46-day-old baby, who died in November 2010 of respiratory failure. Tests revealed that the baby’s blood contained toxic levels of morphine and clonazepam, ABC News reported.
That other mothers have been charged, even convicted, does not prove the point. Nor does your “common sense” feeling that it has to be bad, to be dangerous. The answer is medical, scientific, not what makes sense to you, a judge or a prosecutor. Certainly not a jury. And a doc on the stand proclaiming to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the methadone killed the baby isn’t a substitute for actual scientific proof.
If this was so obvious, so ordinary, one would expect to have thousands of dead babies rather than a handful. There are a lot of addicted moms who turn to methadone to break free. And they have lots of babies for reasons we need not discuss. There is no epidemic of dead methadone babies. There is no dire warning to be given to moms on methadone that breastfeeding will kill their infants. And yet, it all seems so obvious as long as we require no actual scientific proof to support it.
But then, even scientific proof becomes problematic when we’re talking about babies. Remember “shaken baby syndrome,” the go-to cause of death because the prosecution had nothing else with which to indict? The science was inductive rather than deductive, forcing death to fit into a criminal paradigm because what else could it be? Except it wasn’t criminal at all. Sometimes, terrible things happen to babies and there’s no one to blame.
Charging Jones with killing her baby falls into the most dangerous of criminal accusations, replete with emotion and sorely lacking in science. But a baby died, and babies don’t just die. Someone must pay. Who else but a breastfeeding mom can be the culprit? Except sometimes babies do just die. Sometimes, we don’t know why they died. And even if it was due to the methadone (or other drugs), was there any way Jones could have known that engaging in one of the most natural things for a mother to do would harm her baby?
*I misread the quote the first time, and after being told of my extremely poor reading skills, corrected my mistake.