The Conviction of Purvi Patel and the Criminalization of Abortion

AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Robert Franklin

Purvi Patel is taken into custody after being sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a dependent, Monday, March 30, 2015, at the St. Joseph County Courthouse in South Bend, Indiana. 

Last March, Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indiana woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for fetal homicide. Patel is the first woman in the country to be convicted under a feticide law for having an abortion. Reproductive rights advocates believe that her conviction signals a new trend of criminalizing the procedure.

The facts of the case are in dispute. Patel’s attorney challenged the sentence Monday at an Indiana Court of Appeals hearing, arguing that the allegations are all over the map. Patel has been charged with feticide—conduct before the delivery. She was also charged with neglect of a dependent child—conduct after the delivery.

Prosecutors say that Patel obtained pills from an overseas source to induce an abortion, but investigators found no drugs in her system. The two sides also disagree over how far along Patel was in her pregnancy and whether the baby was born alive or stillborn. She has languished in jail for the past year.

Feticide laws are on the books in 38 states, and were originally passed to protect pregnant women who were victims of domestic violence.

Patel’s case has sparked concern that self-inducing abortions can now be criminalized along with other behaviors, such as consuming alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or even accidents like falling down stairs. Of particular concern is that the majority of abortion-related arrests have targeted low-income women and women of color, say Jeanne Flavin, a Fordham University sociology professor and Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Paltrow and Flavin argue that there has been a notable uptick in arrests since 2005, which coincided with a dramatic spike in the number of states that passed laws impeding access to abortion.

In March, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said that women who terminate their pregnancies should undergo “some form of punishment” if abortions were banned. He quickly backpedaled amid a public outcry, but reproductive rights advocates say his controversial attitudes are not uncommon among state legislators.

Lawrence Marshall, Patel’s attorney, argued on Monday that the state of Indiana has failed to substantiate the allegations that led to his client’s conviction. “The evidence in this case was not there,” he said. “Not a single expert ever said in any sort of declarative way that this infant would have survived had Ms. Patel [acted] differently.” Indiana Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender defended Patel’s conviction and urged the court to uphold the sentence. A final decision is not expected for several months. An appeal to the state’s high court is expected.

Prior to the hearing, health, bioethics, and legal experts submitted an amicus brief in support of Patel. They argued that these types of prosecutions exacerbate fear and stigma around unwanted pregnancies, deterring some women from seeking medical care, and others from speaking honestly with the doctors that they do see. Legal experts also argued that feticide prosecutions violate women’s constitutional rights to “procedural due process, procreative privacy, and equal protection.”

Anti-abortion leaders say that they oppose punishing women for abortions. They argue that the “abortionists,” doctors who perform the procedures, should face criminal sanctions. Indeed, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill last week that would jail abortion providers. However, Republican Governor Mary Fallin, an abortion opponent, vetoed the measure. Still, reproductive rights advocates say that prosecuting women who seek the procedure is the next step in the “abortion is murder” framework: A woman who self-induces an abortion becomes “the abortionist” and should be charged with a crime.

“We need to see accountability for what pro-life groups are doing; their silence and complicity are helping to push these outcomes forward,” says Erin Matson, a co-director of Reproaction. Miriam Yeung, the president of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, reiterated support for Purvi Patel, an Indian American, after Monday’s hearing. “Asian American and Pacific Islander women are particularly vulnerable for being targeted because of myths and racist stereotypes about our reproductive decision-making,” Yeung said in a statement.

If Indiana’s feticide law stands, Yeung continued, then “every pregnant woman in [the] state is at risk of prosecution for any action or inaction, whether for a self-induced abortion, a fall down the stairs, or even a miscarriage.” Rather than devote more resources to surveilling pregnant women who want to end their pregnancies, Yeung argued, policymakers should focus on expanding access to “quality, affordable, and culturally competent” health care.

This article has been updated. 

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