Purvi Patel’s feticide and child neglect convictions — which led to her 20-year jail sentence for the death of her fetus — were overturned today by an Indiana appeals court. Patel had been convicted in the apparently contradictory charges of feticide (the death of an unborn fetus) and child neglect (death due to neglect of a live infant) after the death of her mid-term fetus in 2013. This blog has been following Patel’s story since the very beginning.
Patel’s charges stem from the loss of her fetus under circumstances Patel continues to maintain were an unintended miscarriage — which occurs as often as in approximately 10-20% of pregnancies. Prosecutors, however, argued that Patel had self-induced a chemical abortion. Their evidence? Text messages between Patel and a friend where Patel expressed interest in the purchase in abortion-inducing drugs; yet, there was no concrete evidence showing that Patel ever purchased those drugs, and no drugs were found in her bloodstream at the time of her fetus’ death.
Patel’s case has alarmed women’s rights activists since 2013, because it is symptomatic of how anti-choice activists have misapplied the law and other systems designed to protect women, and instead used them to criminalize pregnant women. Patel was arrested in the death of her fetus after her emergency room doctor called authorities when she was admitted for excessive hemorrhaging, and when he subsequently went out to search for incriminating evidence of an illegal abortion. Patel was charged with feticide using laws originally written with the intention of protecting battered women from physical abuse that leads to the loss of their fetus at the hands of their batterer; that law has been used twice by prosecutors in Indiana to persecute women — and in both cases, those women have been Asian American and/or immigrant women of colour. Patel’s mistreatment by our legal system undermines any possibility of trust between women — and specifically women of colour — and the medical or justice systems in this country.
After Patel was sentenced in February to twenty years in jail, her advocates (including the wonderful AAPI feminist group, NAPAWF) quickly prepared appeals proceedings. Today, the appeals court ruled in Patel’s favour, overturning her feticide conviction, saying: “Given that the legislature decriminalized abortion with respect to pregnant women only two years before it enacted the feticide statute, we conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women.”
This is an important precedent that establishes new protection for Indiana women from being criminalized by a state law originally enacted to protect us from abusers and other violent crimes.
The Appeals Court also reasoned that prosecutors had failed to demonstrate that Patel’s fetus would have survived had she not immediately sought medical attention, and vacated her Class A child neglect charge. They remanded her case back to the lower courts with instructions that she be convicted with a Class D child neglect charge, and resentenced accordingly.
This outcome is positive for Patel, as it could drastically reduce her jail sentence from twenty years to as little as six months to three years (which might then qualify her for release based on time served — she has already spent nearly two years in jail). In addition, Indiana law permits Class D felonies to be reclassified as Class A misdemeanors depending on the whim of her lower court judge.
But, this outcomes also sets a few dangerous precedents as well. First, the Appeals Court’s finding that the court had successfully demonstrated that Patel’s fetus had been born alive legitimizes the continued use of the archaic, imprecise, and controversial lung float test. Experts dispute the validity of that test; the Appeals Court’s decision go directly against those medical and scientific opinions.
In addition, the Appeals Court still upheld a lesser version of Patel’s child neglect conviction on the grounds that only unborn fetuses do not constitute a dependent under Indiana’s child neglect laws. Consequently, the Court set the worrisome precedent that a mid-term fetus that results either from a miscarriage or an abortion — and that has limited expectation of surviving beyond a minute past birth — but that is nonetheless removed from its mother’s body alive and dies shortly thereafter, is subject to the same legal requirement for medical care as a child as old as fourteen years old. This brings us one more step closer to fetal “personhood” in the state of Indiana, which is part of a larger and distressing strategy by anti-choice activists to reverse Roe v. Wade.
Purvi Patel’s case is yet another canary in the coal mine for abortion access, and what is clear from her story is that this country is becoming increasingly hostile towards our reproductive rights. Women — and particularly immigrant women of colour — are finding ourselves forced onto the frontlines of this war, where we find ourselves the first to be criminalized for our pregnancies.
This post will be updated with any information on how we as AAPI women can continue to support Purvi Patel.
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