A 33-year-old woman from Indiana faces decades in prison after she sought medical attention at a hospital as she was bleeding from a premature delivery. The case is just the latest example illustrating the real-world consequences of the harsh state laws that essentially criminalize pregnancy.
According to the charges being filed against her, Purvi Patel attempted to end her pregnancy last year by taking pills that she bought online from Hong Kong. The pills didn’t work, and Patel eventually delivered a premature baby at home. When she went to an emergency room to seek treatment after giving birth, the staff asked why she didn’t have an infant with her. She said her baby appeared to be dead, and she had wrapped it in a bag and placed it in a dumpster.
Now, Patel is being charged with both neglect and feticide, allegations that actually conflict with each other. She was initially charged with “neglect of a dependent” after prosecutors learned she left her baby in in a dumpster, a charge that won’t apply if the baby was already dead. But she’s now also being charged with “fetal murder of an unborn child” — a charge that an Indiana judge allowed to stand this week — for taking drugs that could have illegally ended her pregnancy.
As the Daily Beast’s Sally Kohn points out, the logic doesn’t exactly hold up. “The State of Indiana intends to convict and incarcerate Purvi Patel one way or another, whether the fetus she delivered was alive or not — never mind the fact that the facts necessary for filing the one charge (that the fetus have been alive) entirely contradict the facts necessary for filing the other (that the fetus have been dead) and vice versa,” Kohn writes.
On top of that, reproductive rights advocates and legal experts point out that Indiana’s “feticide” law was never intended to be applied to pregnant women themselves. It was originally written as a way to crack down on illegal abortion providers. Critics say Patel fits into a disturbing trend; similar “fetal homicide” laws are in place in at least 38 states, and they’re increasingly used to punish women who end up having miscarriages or stillbirths.
“Once again targeting a woman of color, prosecutors in Indiana are using this very sad situation to establish that intentional abortions as well as unintentional pregnancy losses should be punished as crimes,” Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which tracks these cases closely, said in a recent statement about Patel’s case. “In the U.S., as a matter of constitutional law and human decency, no woman should be arrested for the outcome of her pregnancy.”
Patel is the second woman to be prosecuted under Indiana’s feticide law. The state also pressed charges against Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who attempted suicide while pregnant and ended up delivering a baby that didn’t survive. Shaui was imprisoned for more than a year before a plea deal was reached in April, and her case sparked international outrage. More than 100,000 people signed onto a petition demanding Shuai’s release and pointing out that “it is wrong to have a set of separate and unequal laws for pregnant women.”
The laws that allow states to arrest pregnant women for allegedly harming their fetuses actually end up undermining public health. Major medical groups like the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose “feticide” laws because they ultimately deter women from seeking the medical attention they need.
Harsh restrictions on abortion, as well as unreasonably broad definitions of “fetal homicide,” have created a society in which all pregnant women are transformed into potential suspects in the eyes of the law. And since miscarriage and abortion are relatively common pregnancy experiences — and research has proven that women are going to end their pregnancies whether or not it’s legal — that means we’re also approaching a society in which desperate women may be too terrified to ask for health treatment. For instance, if Patel had known that she was at risk for being charged with fetal homicide, would she have thought twice about going to the emergency room? Would she have joined the millions of women around the world who die from botched abortions and risky childbirth?
“We cannot afford to deter a woman from seeking reproductive health care,” the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice pointed out in a statement released this week. “Those of us who are Christian know that when Jesus responded to the hemorrhaging woman there was no place for aggressive interrogation and punishment. It was all for healing.”