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FEATURE | Spring 2015

Indiana Injustice

Purvi Patel’s feticide case is a call to action


By DEEPA IYER and GAYLYNN BURROUGHS

BEFORE JULY 2013, PURVI PATEL LIVED A RELATIVELY PRIVATE LIFE IN SOUTH BEND, Indiana. Patel, a 33-year-old Indian American woman, worked at her family’s restaurant and took care of her parents and ailing grandparents. Over the past year and a half, though, Patel’s life has been upended. She is the first woman in the United States to be convicted and sent to prison for feticide.

In July 2013, Patel went to the emergency room at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center—a part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health-care systems in the U.S.—seeking help for heavy vaginal bleeding. Patel did not immediately tell medical staff that she had been pregnant and had suffered a miscarriage, but upon examination one of the doctors discovered an umbilical cord protruding from her body, and that’s when Patel’s story took a horrible turn. The doctor, Kelly Wayne McGuire, called the police. Then he left the hospital to join police to search for the fetal remains.

Meanwhile, Patel remained hospitalized. When she awoke in the early hours of the morning, she was greeted by police officers who immediately began an interrogation. They demanded to know the identity of the father and, as described by Emma Selm of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, who says she watched a recording of the interrogation, asked, “Was he Indian too?”

A month later, Patel was charged with feticide and neglect of a dependent—two seemingly contradictory charges—on the theory that she attempted to selfabort her pregnancy but that the fetus survived and was abandoned. During the trial, prosecutors presented little evidence that Patel had attempted an abortion. They claimed that Patel had ingested an abortifacient, but only cited a few emails and text messages from Patel to a friend that said she had obtained the drugs, and according to Patel’s attorney, a toxicology report showed no evidence of abortifacients in her body or in the fetus.

One of the pieces of evidence used by the prosecutors on the neglect charge was a “lung float test,” where the fetal lungs are placed in water to see if they float. This test, developed in the 17th century, has been questioned by numerous forensic pathologists and in well-respected pathology textbooks. The theory goes that if the lungs float, the baby took a breath— meaning it was alive at birth. But pathologists have disputed that claim and Patel testified that she attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which could have delivered air to the fetal lungs.

A jury found Patel guilty on both charges, and on March 30, 2015, she was given a 41-year sentence, of which she will serve 20 years in prison.

Indiana’s feticide law is not unique. At least 38 states have these types of laws on the books, and 23 of them apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy. What is troubling is that prosecutors are turning these laws against pregnant women, and judges are allowing them to do so.

Patel’s case creates the possibility that any pregnant woman who suffers health complications, such as a miscarriage or stillbirth, may find herself criminally investigated and charged. According to Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, “Women’s pregnancies are now becoming the subject of policing, prosecution and severe sentences in an age of mass incarceration.”

While all women are potentially vulnerable, immigrant women, women of color and low-income women are at even greater risk of being criminalized and punished by feticide laws. This is not the first time a pregnant woman of color has been targeted: In 2011, Indiana prosecutors charged Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant, with attempted feticide and murder after Shuai, following a suicide attempt, delivered a baby that soon died. Instead of offering Shuai mental health treatment and support, she was held without bail for over a year and faced substantial prison time before accepting a plea deal to a lesser charge.

Asian American women are often targeted by policies that seek to regulate a woman’s reproductive choices and health, according to Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. For example, antiabortion politicians have sought to justify sex-selective abortion bans by playing into stereotypes and cultural biases against Asian Americans. By framing regulation as necessary to correct “bad cultural practices,” these policies often create situations in which the choices and actions of Asian American women are viewed with suspicion.

“On the one front, Asian American women are supposed to be the ‘model minority’ who do great on our own, so real needs such as language access, economic insecurity, safety and culturally competent preventive health care don’t get adequately addressed,” said Yeung. “On another front, [Asian American immigrants] are still seen as the ‘perpetual foreigners,’ the ‘other.’…Combine that with the extreme anti-woman and anti-abortion politics of states like Indiana, which have made it ever more difficult for any woman to access reproductive health care, and add on [this country’s] frighteningly insatiable lust for criminalization and incarceration, and what we get is the tragic story of Purvi Patel—sentenced for 20 years for suffering a miscarriage.”

As Patel prepares for a legal appeal, reproductive-justice advocates are gearing up to ensure that similar efforts targeting pregnant women do not occur elsewhere. They urge people to call on legislators to repeal feticide laws, and call on state prosecutors to stop trying to punish women for pregnancy loss, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion.

Patel’s case should set alarm bells ringing in the minds of all those concerned with the welfare of pregnant women. This case may indeed open the door to more legislative, criminal and legal attacks on pregnant women. We must work together to close this door, once and for all. The health and well-being of all women are at stake.

Reprinted from the Spring issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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Image via Shutterstock.

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