Purvi Patel, Convicted Of Feticide After Self-Induced Abortion, Appeals In Indiana Court

On Monday, the Indiana Court of Appeals heard an appeal from Purvi Patel, charged with feticide and neglect of a dependent, to overturn her 20-year prison sentence. You’re probably thinking these charges sound mutually exclusive, and well, that’s because, as Patel’s lawyers pointed out, they are. But that didn’t stop an Indiana jury and Judge Elizabeth Hurley from convicting and originally sentencing Patel to 30 years, when neither conviction technically even required prison time.

Patel went to a hospital in July 2013 having lost about 20 percent of her blood and in need of emergency surgery. She told her doctors she had given birth to a stillborn infant and believed she had only been between 10 and 12 weeks pregnant. Naturally, none of this was to the satisfaction of a radically anti-choice doctor attending to her, who proceeded to call the police because she found Patel’s frantic texting suspicious.

Police then showed up and interrogated Patel as she lay on a hospital bed (I shit you not), and proceeded to arrest her, with charges against her based on the questionable premise that the infant she’d borne had briefly been alive. Her trial took place in April 2015, and after being convicted, Patel has spent the past year in prison.

Patel’s lawyers, who include Stanford Law professor Lawrence Marshall, who also helped found Northwestern University’s wrongful conviction project, and Indiana University law professor Joel Schumm, first argued that for an act to constitute “child neglect,” the child must be born and alive, while feticide requires the infant to have died prior to birth, exposing the ultimately paradoxical, contradictory nature of the case against Patel.

Further, Marshall and Schumm pointed out that the 2009 law Patel had been convicted under, which increases in severity the punishment for killing a pregnant woman’s fetus, was meant to be used against third parties inflicting harm on the pregnant woman and her fetus, not the pregnant woman herself. The state countered that the law didn’t explicitly prevent them from targeting the pregnant woman. Fucking of course they did.

Patel’s lawyers also challenged the results of the “lung float test” that the prosecution had used to argue Patel’s infant had actually been born, however briefly, alive. But as the most recent edition of Knight’s Forensic Pathology, a widely used textbook, points out:

“There are too many recorded instances when control tests have shown that stillborn lungs may float and the lungs from undoubtedly live-born infants have sunk, to allow it to be used in testimony in a criminal trial.”

As early as 1984, the authors of the textbook, Essentials of Forensic Medicine, called the test “pointless.”

Slate’s Leon Neyfakh pointed out the suspicious nature of how overly simple the test is, last year when the case against Patel first gained national attention:

“[T]he lung float test stands out for its simplicity — a lung that floats means born alive, a lung that sinks means stillborn — and for how decisively it appears to answer one of the most complex questions that forensic pathologists face.”

To Judge Nancy Vaidik, who, thankfully, seemed much more sympathetic/logical than Judge Hurley, it’s worth noting that the prosecution could offer no evidence Patel knew her infant had been alive (if this was even the case, at all), the Associated Press reports.

Vaidik went on to question the great paradox upon which the prosecution’s case is built on, asking deputy attorney general Ellen Meilaender, who presented the state’s arguments: “You can’t endanger a dead baby, can you?”

Vaidik’s comments in court today offer a glimmer of hope, but Patel’s fate remains up in the air.

Patel’s appeal comes a year after prosecutors, as MSNBC put it, “told jurors a story of a cold and unfeeling woman,” using graphic language and speculation based on the premise that the infant had been born alive. This premise, like the prosecution’s charge of “neglect of a child” is, as a whole, contradicted by evidence touted by the prosecution that Patel used an abortion pill purchased from Hong Kong, which suggests that the fetus was born dead.

But that didn’t stop them from saying shit like this:

  • “The defendant took care of herself while her baby laid dying” – prosecutor Aimee Herring, in her opening statement to the jury.
  • “On July 13, a little boy was born on a cold, hard bathroom floor. The only touch he got from his mother was to move him from the bathroom floor to a garbage can” – prosecutor Mark Roule, in his closing statement.

I don’t think I need to explain why a world in which a woman can be charged with both neglecting a living child and committing feticide, all for having virtually no other option but to perform a self-induced abortion and then experience a stillbirth, is a very, very dangerous one.

According to researchers at Ibis Reproductive health, a hundred thousand women have tried to ended their pregnancies through self-induced abortion in the state of Texas alone. Legal abortion clinics closing at alarming rates across the country, largely due to unnecessary requirements that essentially require clinics to be full-on hospitals or shut down, could only make things worse.

Studies cited by the Guttmacher Institute have confirmed anti-choice regulations like waiting periods, the inconvenience of multiple mandated appointments prior to a procedure, and closing clinics due to unrealistic regulations, all contribute to higher rates of women traveling out of state for their abortions, delaying their abortions to the second trimester, and in Patel’s case, being driven to commit a self-induced abortion.

The Guardian even points out that many women’s rights advocates have argued Patel’s actions were a consequence of Indiana’s numerous regulations on abortion “prevent[ing] Patel from terminating her pregnancy with the supervision of a doctor. Women’s rights advocates also argue “her trial was a case of overzealous prosecutors criminalizing a miscarriage.”

Supreme Court To Hear Abortion Rights Case
CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Patel’s experiences serve as a stark reminder of America’s grim history with abortion rights, which proved that undermining science and public health and making abortion illegal didn’t stop desperate, impoverished women from performing unspeakably gruesome self-terminations, which predominantly resulted in fatal injury, sterilization, or death.

The disastrous consequences of attempted self-terminations were such a big problem that hospitals in the mid-20th century literally had allotted rooms filled with women who were victims of botched terminations. It’s terrifying to think decades later, instead of moving forward in terms of our treatment of women, that they could be in situations similar to Purvi Patel’s.

On the surface, Patel’s experiences don’t immediately appear related to race, but as Miriam Zoila Pérez at Color Lines points out, “women of color are more likely to be prosecuted than white women,” and further, the only other woman in Indiana convicted of feticide before Patel was Bei-Bei Shuai, a woman of Chinese descent, who was convicted for attempting suicide while pregnant. This evidence doesn’t confirm racism played a role in Patel being convicted, but it’s certainly indicative of some racial undertones.

donald trump abortion pro-choice
CREDIT: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Patel’s experiences serve as an eerie reminder of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s calls for a ban on abortion, and issuing punishment to women obtaining abortions, back in March. Trump has since more or less recanted this proposal, but Patel’s case reflects just how disturbing the proposal would be if played out in the real world.

Tragically enough, even if Patel’s appeal winds up successful, this probably won’t be the last time we hear of women being unfairly charged with feticide. Since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973, according to a study published by the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law in 2013, both law enforcement and the courts have continued to arrest and prosecute several hundred women for the outcomes of their pregnancies.