The sad case of Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman and the first person in US history to be charged, convicted, and sentenced for intentional miscarriage by a state, hinges on weak evidence, anti-choice vitriol, and fear.
Patel, at the time of her miscarriage in 2013, was keeping her pregnancy a secret from her conservative Hindu parents as it involved a married man and premarital sex. When she gave birth, in a flood of blood and terror, she was completely out of her depth. Patel delivered her highly premature baby by herself. And after attempting and failing to resuscitate the fetus, who wasn’t moving, she disposed of the body and took herself to the hospital. There, she told the doctors she had a miscarriage and had disposed of the fetus’s body.
Later police interrogation has her stating she didn’t know how far along she was, and she estimated it couldn’t have been more than two months. During that time she did not seek prenatal care, again out of fear that her family would find out. The autopsy of the fetus puts it more at 24–26 weeks, but in her denial of her pregnancy she possibly deluded herself about how far along she was. The police interrogator also seemed to be fixated on the race of the fetus’ father, asking Patel over and over again ‘Was he Indian and where was he?’
The court proceeding for the case had a variety of issues and irregularities:
- A text of Patel’s mentioning that she was looking for abortion-inducing drugs was submitted as evidence that she was considering abortion. Though no abortifacients were found in her blood and no proof of the purchase was forwarded, the prosecution still argued she had taken drugs with the intention to abort the fetus.
- The prosecution presented an expert who used the defunct and widely discredited ‘lung float test’ (where the fetus’ lungs are floated in water to determine whether they were living when they were born) to prove Patel killed a ‘viable’ fetus, e.g. a fetus that was capable of living. The ‘lung float test’ was discredited 100 years ago.
- On this murky evidence, she was sentenced to 20 years in jail for ‘feticide’ and ‘neglect of a dependent’ though these two crimes are mutually exclusive since neglect implies a living fetus.
- If Patel was in fact trying to have an abortion, it does not make sense that Indiana’s state feticide law would be invoked in her case, even if she was attempting it with non-prescription abortifacients. Before now Indiana’s feticide laws were employed to punish those who intentionally terminated another person’s pregnancy, not their own.
Besides the obvious oddities of her sentence, Patel seems to have faced some discrimination and racism within her case’s proceedings. The policeman asking her over and over again whether the fetus’ father was Indian is particularly weird. It’s also interesting that Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant, faced similar charges right before Patel when she caused her fetus’ death because of her own attempted suicide. This isn’t enough to assume that Patel was charged because of racism, but these events are worth noting especially as women of color are becoming more frequently targeted by enforcers of feticide laws.
It is also interesting to note Indiana’s lack of an ‘attempted feticide’ subsection of state law. Most other laws in Indiana, like murder or assault, have a tempered ‘attempted’ category that reduces the sentence for those who try and fail. Feticide, in Indiana law, does not have this consideration. Either you are guilty of it or you are not. This leaves very little wiggle room, legally speaking, even for misinformed and scared women like Patel.
In addition, Indiana’s abortion laws, while legalizing abortion, do make it extremely difficult for those seeking abortions. 93% of Indiana’s counties don’t have abortion clinics and anti-abortion counseling is mandatory before the procedure. Though Patel ultimately decided against an abortion, it’s unclear whether Indiana’s lack of abortion rights and clinic accessibility played into this decision. Though she did not opt for an abortion, she also did not seek prenatal care, implying that she was not focused on raising the child. If she had had an easier time of it, Patel may have opted for a safe and legal abortion, but it remains that she had a miscarriage and gave birth to a premature baby.
In this case, when the evidence for Patel’s fetus being ‘viable’ could not been proven ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ it seems ridiculous and unjust that she would receive such a hefty sentence. And if medical experts diverge over whether there was enough evidence the fetus was alive at birth, then it’s reasonable Patel, with no medical experience, may have been unable to tell as well. Also it seems especially wrong that a law without previous precedent in this area would be employed to sentence her. Even the sentence — to have Patel be convicted of both neglect and fetal homicide sounds like double jeopardy. Surely fetal homicide includes neglect? Everything in Patel’s case feels incorrect.
Many states have a scary track record of hauling women in for feticide because they fell down the stairs or took other actions during their own pregnancies. At some point it stops seeming like these are cases of feticide and rather it’s more about criminalizing women and controlling pregnancies. If a woman can be forced to undergo a dangerous C-section she doesn’t want for the sake of protecting a premature baby, the law ceases protecting mothers entirely. At what point does the law determine the rights of the mother and the rights of the child are acceptably mutually exclusive? And when does the mother’s rights cease to matter?
In each of the cases where women are charged with intentionally killing or harming their own fetus, outside of normal abortion considerations, it seems as though there is an intention to punish them beyond their crimes. Possibly Patel was wrong to dispose of her miscarriage on her own but surely there should be some allowance for basic fear and panic. It is not fair to assume that she did not do everything should could think of doing and ultimately, in an act of self-preservation, took herself to the hospital to get checked by a doctor. Her actions are not inherently criminal, though they may have been confused. Though she was strongly motivated by fear and shame, Indiana is bending state law and precedent to punish her. It is unjust.
Want to help Purvi Patel? Deep Iyer has supplied this list of options to help Patel and her family:
Four Things You Can Do Now
1. Sign the petition at RhReality Check: Send a message to Indiana leaders about Purvi’s case and the feticide law. You can also sign a petition here (at whitehouse.gov) which asks for a full pardon for Purvi Patel.
2. Support Purvi Patel’s Family: Patel was the breadwinner and caregiver in her family. Donate to support her family.
3. Raise awareness: Share articles and resources about the verdict with your own networks; write blogposts and opeds; and tweet using #Justice4Purvi to raise awareness about the implications of this case on the rights of all women.
4. Send a note of support to Purvi Patel: You can send cards to Purvi Patel c/o The Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice (IRCRC), PO Box 723, Lafayette, IN 47902. They will deliver them to Patel on their visits to her in prison.
*Check out the work of organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, theNational Advocates for Pregnant Women, Apna Ghar, South Asian American Policy and Research Instituteand the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice for resources, talking points and additional information.
*You can also join the Facebook page, Justice for Purvi Patel, here.