Miscarriage of Justice: Asian-American Women Targeted -- and All Women Threatened -- by Feticide Laws Like Indiana's

(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 on Monday, March 30, 2015, at the St. Joseph County Courthouse in South Bend, Indiana. Yet she may simply have had a miscarriage.

Like many women, Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old woman living in South Bend, Indiana, had an unplanned pregnancy. But unlike most women’s experiences, her unplanned pregnancy and subsequent stillbirth led to a criminal conviction. Today, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Patel, an unmarried Indian-American woman living with her parents in South Bend Indiana, kept her pregnancy a secret for months, while working a low-wage job to support her parents and grandparents, who suffer from costly health conditions.  Last summer, Patel believed she had suffered a miscarriage. She went to an emergency room seeking assistance for heavy vaginal bleeding.  Just a few hours after she underwent medical treatment, while still in her hospital bed, local police arrived to interrogate her. Patel said she had miscarried, believed the fetus was not alive, and placed it in a bag in a dumpster.

Local police decided to investigate further and found text messages indicating Patel may have ordered drugs to terminate the pregnancy, though a toxicologist testified at Patel’s trial that no record of drugs was found in Patel’s blood samples. The investigation led to the state of Indiana charging and convicting her of two contradictory offenses: feticide and neglect of a dependent. On Monday, March 30, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the charge of neglecting a dependent, with 10 suspended. She was also sentenced to six years for feticide, with that time served concurrently. She plans to appeal.

Feticide laws like the one in Indiana are in place in 38 states. Supporters of Indiana’s feticide law claimed its intent was to criminalize abusers who enact violence against pregnant women, but it’s clear that they have always been used as an abortion restriction.  These laws are being used to punish pregnant women and mothers. Purvi Patel’s conviction amounts to punishment for having a miscarriage and seeking health care, and confirms that the feticide law will be used to recriminalize abortion and to jail women who seek to end a pregnancy.

The experiences of Asian Americans are regularly silenced, and the ways in which gender inequity and racial stereotypes intertwine are similarly often ignored. The high-profile case of Purvi Patel offers a rare opportunity to examine how oppression of women of color can play out, and to give voice to Asian-American women.

Patel is the second women to be prosecuted under Indiana’s feticide law. The first woman was also an Asian American. In 2011, state prosecutors brought charges of attempted feticide and murder against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from deep depression who had tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not. 

With a history of stereotyping Asians as untrustworthy, perfidious foreigners, it is highly probable that racial assumptions played a role in singling out these immigrant women of color for prosecution. There is already evidence that these laws disproportionately burden women of color across the board. A 2013 report published by Duke University found that African American women were found to be significantly more likely to be arrested, reported to state authorities by hospital staff, and subjected to felony charges for feticide.

Patel’s sentencing hearing is happening against the backdrop of an abortion ban that targets Asian-American women, which has passed the Senate in Indiana and is expected to pass in the House. This “sex-selective abortion ban,” which is currently law in seven states, relies on unfounded arguments that there is a widespread crisis of Asians in the U.S. having abortions due to a preference for sons. Essentially, its supporters charge that Asian-American women cannot be trusted to make their own reproductive health decisions. What we know, however, is that Asian Americans are actually having more girls on average than white Americans are. Despite this fact, anti-abortion politicians are pushing these laws, which could cause doctors to question the motives of Asian-American women and perhaps even deny them services.

The impact of feticide and sex-selective abortion bans on women, and marginalized women in particular, is vast. Knowing that the penalty for miscarrying could be decades behind bars, or that she could become a suspect in her own doctor’s office, a woman may avoid seeking medical assistance. For women who are not U.S. citizens and who often have limited English language proficiency, the risk is high. Getting into trouble with the law could have immigration ramifications, and one simple miscommunication could change everything.

These laws are one part of the larger strategy to do away with the right to abortion all together. They force us to ask the question: If abortion for sex-selection is banned today, what will come next? How does one test a person’s intention when she decides to end a pregnancy?

Such a ban opens the door to more and more restrictions based on a woman’s reasons for choosing abortion. These kinds of restrictions harm everyone who seeks access to comprehensive reproductive health care.

We cannot allow Purvi Patel to be invisible. We cannot allow other young women of color to be stereotyped and prosecuted instead of being offered the reproductive and mental-health care they need. It is important to draw attention to the insidious ways in which Asian-American women are being singled out for reproductive injustice, and to the many ways in which racism and sexism meet. Our lives— all of our lives— depend on it.


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