A reproductive rights rally in Vancouver, BC. Photo by Sylvia McFadden.
Update 7/21: The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed the conviction of Purvi Patel, though she’s not entirely in the clear. As Slate reports, the appeals court reduced Patel’s conviction from a class A felony to a class D, which will likely result in a new sentence of six months to two and a half years, all or much of which Patel will have already served.
Indiana has finally succeeded in imprisoning a woman for suffering a miscarriage. On Monday, March 30, 2015, Purvi Patel was sentenced to 41 years in prison after being convicted of neglect of a dependent and feticide.
In July 2013, the 33-year-old Patel arrived at an Indiana emergency room. She was bleeding and seeking help. She told hospital staff that she had miscarried. She also told them that she had dumped the fetal remains in the garbage. Hospital workers contacted the police, who searched for these bloody remains. When they found them, they arrested Patel and charged her with “neglect of a dependent.”
The following month, the prosecutor added a charge of feticide. These two charges seem like they contradict each other—”neglect of a dependent” assumes that Patel gave birth to a live child whom she then neglected. Feticide, originally intended to criminalize a person’s “knowing or intentional termination of another’s pregnancy,” was twisted around to criminalize Patel for suffering a miscarriage. According to the prosecutor, “a person can be guilty of feticide even if the fetus in question survives, as long as a deliberate attempt was made to ‘terminate’ the pregnancy ‘with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.’”
The state built its case against Patel using her family’s conservative Hindu background, in which premarital sex is disapproved of, text messages to a friend saying that she had ordered pills to induce an abortion from a Hong Kong pharmacy and, three days later, a text that said, “Just lost the baby,” and some dubious science. That science was the “lung float test,” in which lungs are placed in a container of water. If the lung floats, the test claims, it proves that its owner had breathed in air and had thus been alive. The test has been deemed unreliable for the past hundred years. In addition, the state’s own toxicologist admitted not finding evidence of abortifacients in Patel’s system. But science apparently didn’t matter that much in this case.
On February 3, 2015, a jury found her guilty of both charges. The following month, Patel was sentenced to 41 years in prison. She is currently appealing her case. In the meantime, she is sitting in jail (and will be transferred to the state’s women’s prison).
This is not the first time that Indiana has tried a woman under its feticide law. In 2011, Bei Bei Shuai was 33 weeks pregnant when her boyfriend told her that he was married and was leaving her. Shuai attempted to commit suicide by eating rat poison. Friends found her and rushed her to the hospital, where she was given an emergency c-section. The baby died three days later. She was charged with murder and attempted feticide and jailed without bail for one year. Shuai eventually pled guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to 178 days in jail.
Sentencing someone to prison for a miscarriage seems outrageous—but Indiana’s law is part of an increasing number of “fetus rights” laws nationwide. In thirty-eight states, violence against women that results in pregnancy loss is called fetal homicide. But, as demonstrated by Indiana, that law can be—and has been—used to criminalize the women themselves who lose their pregnancies. Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which defends the rights of pregnant and parenting women including Patel and Shuai, noted that six million people are pregnant in the United States each year. That’s six million people who could be affected by policies that criminalize certain behaviors while pregnant—or which criminalized pregnancy loss.
In recent years, right-wing groups have effectively been pushing for laws that police pregnant women’s bodies—as a way to try and mainstream a rolling back of abortion rights. Between 1973 and 2005, there have been over 400 documented cases in which women faced criminal charges related to their pregnancies. Since 2005, there have been at least 200 additional documented cases of prosecutors criminally charging women under so-called fetal harm laws. In some instances, women like African-American teenager Rennie Gibbs have faced life in prison after delivering a stillborn baby. In others, like those of Alicia Beltran and Tamara Loertscher in Wisconsin, the state has appointed a guardian and legal representation for the fetus, but not for the pregnant woman. In one better-known case, Cornelia Whitner gave birth to a healthy baby boy but was convicted and imprisoned on charges of “endangering the life of her unborn child” after traces of cocaine were found in the baby’s urine. Others, like Regina McKnight who delivered a stillborn baby in 1999, were charged with murder under the state’s “homicide by child abuse” law and sentenced to twenty years in prison. (In McKnight’s case, the state’s supreme court overturned her conviction nine years later, stating that there was not enough proof that cocaine use caused the stillbirth.)
These policies take us back to the years before Roe v. Wade. In a recent panel discussion about the intersection of reproductive justice and prison abolition, Paltrow recounted the case of Shirley Wheeler, who was convicted of manslaughter after having an abortion in 1971. The judge gave her two options—to marry the man who impregnated her or to move back in with her parents. Her conviction was eventually overturned.
As the conviction and imprisonment of Parvi Patel, the trend doesn’t seem to be reversing, let alone slowing, any time soon. Paltrow predicts, “This is something we will see more and more of as women have less and less access to abortion.”
Related Reading: How Pop Culture Reinforces Abortion Stigma—And Can Help End It.
Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.