Purvi Patel’s Feticide Conviction Was Overturned, But It’s Not A Total Reproductive Rights Victory

On Friday, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Purvi Patel’s feticide conviction, but it’s not the reproductive rights victory you may immediately think. If you’re unfamiliar with Patel’s case, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 for feticide and neglect of a dependent after taking pills to induce an abortion. This was extremely controversial, marking the first time a state feticide law, meant for cases in which a pregnant woman is murdered and both her and the fetus die, was used to punish a woman for having an abortion.

The state alleged that Patel gave birth to a living baby that she then let die, which is where the neglect charge came from, but being convicted for feticide and neglect of a dependent contradict one another and essentially claim she killed both an unborn fetus and a living child. However, Patel, 32 at the time, maintained that she gave birth to a stillborn baby. She was arrested when she went to the hospital for the bleeding and it was clear she had given birth.

The court overturned her feticide conviction, claiming the Indiana law was twisted for an unintended purpose. The court explained: “We hold that the legislature did not intend for the feticide statute to apply to illegal abortions or to be used to prosecute women for their own abortions.”

Her lesser conviction for neglect was upheld but lowered from a class A felony to a class D felony, as the state couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the baby would have survived had Patel sought medical attention. She’ll now be resentenced for the class D felony that comes with a possible sentence between six months and three years.

Obviously the feticide conviction being thrown out and Patel’s prison sentence eventually being lowered are huge wins for reproductive rights. Classifying abortion as feticide would effectively outlaw abortion altogether.

But, Patel’s upheld conviction for neglect of a dependent presents the issue of fetal personhood. Despite the initial charge of killing a fetus, the state claims Patel gave birth to a living baby and failed to seek medical attention to save it. Whether or not that’s true, Patel is still being punished for attempting to end her own pregnancy, which opens the door for future cases to argue that getting illegal abortions amounts to neglecting minors.

It’s unclear exactly how far along Patel’s pregnancy was, but court documents claim at least 25 weeks. When a fetus is actually viable is hotly contested, but the Supreme Court said in Roe v. Wade that it’s anywhere from 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy. So, if Patel was 25 weeks pregnant, her fetus might not have been able to survive no matter what medical attention she sought, which brings up the question: can you neglect a nonviable fetus? If you can, all abortions would be considered neglect of a dependent.

Any time a court seeks to give a fetus personhood, the mother’s own rights are stripped, and she becomes vulnerable to a number of criminal charges. It’s impossible to give a fetus rights while upholding a woman’s rights — end of story. That’s exactly why feticide laws are so controversial, and Patel’s conviction being thrown out is a positive step toward ensuring feticide laws aren’t used against pregnant women, but neglect laws shouldn’t be either.