Depending on the outcome of a hearing scheduled for Monday, a 33-year-old Indiana woman could face up to 70 years in prison for what she says was a miscarriage. Reproductive rights advocates say her case is a disturbing example of overly broad laws that essentially criminalize pregnancy.
Purvi Patel was arrested in 2013 after she went to the emergency room to seek medical treatment for heavy bleeding. After initially denying that she had been pregnant, she eventually told the staff that she had a premature delivery at home, believed the fetus was not alive, and placed it in a bag in a dumpster on her way to the hospital. Her doctors called the cops, who questioned Patel while she was still in the hospital, searched her cell phone records, and recovered the fetus.
Patel maintains that she did not abandon a living baby. “I assumed because the baby was dead there was nothing to do,” Patel later told law enforcement officials. “I’ve never been in this situation. I’ve never been pregnant before.”
Her lawyers said the pregnancy resulted from a sexual relationship with a married co-worker, and Patel didn’t want her conservative Hindu parents — who raised her under the assumption that she shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage — to know about it. They also said Patel didn’t realize how far along her pregnancy was, and was shocked to see what the fetus looked like when she experienced the premature delivery.
State officials, meanwhile, contend they have evidence to suggest Patel attempted an illegal abortion after purchasing abortion-inducing drugs online. They say she intentionally tried to end her pregnancy — even though a toxicologist testified there was no trace of the drugs in her bloodstream — and then abandoned her living child after the termination was unsuccessful.
In February, an Indiana jury deliberated for less than five hours before finding Patel guilty of both charges brought against her: one for “fetal murder of an unborn child” and one for “neglect of a dependent.”
Critics say there are a lot of issues with the way Patel’s case has unfolded over the past two years. For instance, Patel was first questioned in her hospital bed without a lawyer present. Expert witnesses could not come to consensus about the gestational age of her fetus. The prosecution relied on a highly unscientific method to try to determine whether her fetus was born dead or alive.
But one of the most fundamental problems, according to Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), is the fact that Patel was charged with two different crimes that completely contradict each other.
“It’s confusing why a prosecutor would be allowed to bring such contradictory charges,” Paltrow, a lawyer who has spent her career opposing the prosecution and punishment of pregnant women, told ThinkProgress. “How can you both have caused a pregnancy to terminate and given birth to a baby whom you neglect?”
Indiana’s “feticide” law, the statute that allowed state officials to bring the charge of murder against Patel, was not intended to be applied to women themselves. It was originally enacted as a way to crack down on illegal abortion providers. However, Paltrow pointed out that Patel’s case fits into a chilling trend: Even though abortion opponents say that the mounting legal restrictions against the procedure are not supposed to target women, it’s becoming clear that some women are winding up behind bars anyway.
“What this prosecution makes clear is that not only is abortion being recriminalized in America, but that the women themselves — not just the people who perform abortions on them — can be arrested, investigated, prosecuted, and sent to jail for 20 or more years,” Paltrow said.
This issue is bigger than abortion itself. Across the country, so-called “fetal homicide” laws are on the books in at least 37 states. Although those laws are typically written in a way that allows the state to prosecute people who commit a crime against a pregnant woman that results in the loss of her pregnancy, they’re not limited to those situations. They’re increasingly being used to punish women who have miscarriages or stillbirths, and who are accused of having done something to cause the pregnancy loss. Other women have been charged with murder for allegedly seeking to harm their fetuses by using illicit drugs or even simply falling down the stairs.
In Indiana specifically, Patel is the second woman to be prosecuted under the feticide law. In 2011, the state pressed similar charges against Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who tried to commit suicide while she was pregnant. After Shaui went on to deliver a baby who didn’t survive, she was convicted of intentionally harming her pregnancy and imprisoned for more than a year in a case that sparked international outrage. More than 100,000 people signed onto a petition demanding her release, pointing out that her case “sets a dangerous legal double standard for pregnant women suffering from mental health issues.”
Sue Ellen Braunlin, the co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, which has been actively involved in pushing back against the prosecutions of pregnant women in the state, is concerned that the first two cases in this area both involve women of color. As states expand the reach of “fetal harm” laws, she worries that will end up affecting the most vulnerable residents of this country.
“These rights are going to be taken away first from the margins — from people of color, people who are immigrants, people who they may perceive won’t have a lot of support from the jury, and people who are easy to ‘other,’ ” Braunlin told ThinkProgress. “I think that these women were probably particularly targeted.”
There’s some evidence to back up her fears. According to a study conducted by NAPW reviewing the prosecutions of women in relation to their pregnancies between 1973 and 2005, low-income women and women of color are disproportionately arrested under feticide laws. Black women are significantly more likely to be reported to authorities by hospital staff under suspicion that they harmed their unborn children.
“Our research — and just American history in general — makes clear that as you are trying to expand the power of the state to punish people, typically the first people who are targeted are the ones who are most vulnerable to state power to begin with,” Paltrow pointed out. “It’s not surprising that the efforts to reinterpret Indiana law so they can arrest women for having abortions has targeted immigrant women of color.”
Reproductive justice organizations have been raising the alarm about Patel’s case for months, saying that broad feticide laws are creating a separate legal standard for pregnant women. They point out that, if women have to worry about getting arrested after going to the hospital, it will deter them from seeking critical medical care. If Patel has known that she risked being charged with fetal homicide, for instance, would she have thought twice about going to the emergency room to stem her bleeding?
And according to Braunlin, who has been in regular contact with Patel throughout the criminal proceedings, it was “frightening” to see how much of the case appeared to rest on the public’s knee-jerk reaction to Patel’s conduct immediately after her premature delivery. It disturbs a lot of people that she chose to place the fetus in a dumpster. Her nurses were surprised that she wasn’t displaying more emotion at the hospital, and wondered why she was spending so much time on her phone.
Ultimately, Patel didn’t fit other people’s ideas of how a proper grieving mother should behave — which would hardly be the first time that prosecutors have pushed to level charges against women deemed to be “bad mothers.”
“I think some people think it’s just an icky case, so they don’t want to stand up for her,” Braunlin said.
Patel was sentenced to 41 years in prison on Monday afternoon, according to local outlet 95.3 MNC. She plans to appeal. NewsCenter 16 reports more details on the sentencing, concluding that Patel faces up to 20 years behind bars. She received 30 years in prison for the charge of neglecting a dependent, with 10 suspended. She was also sentenced to six years for the charge of feticide, but would be able to serve that time concurrently.