The Landmark Reproductive Rights Case In Indiana

Restricting reproductive rights doesn't just impair a woman's access to abortion — sometimes, these laws end up criminalizing pregnant women in tragic circumstances. This is the case in Indiana, where 33-year-old Purvi Patel was charged with feticide after self-inducing an abortion with drugs she obtained over the Internet. An Indiana judge ruled on Wednesday that the feticide charge can stand, and now Patel faces decades in prison — up to 20 years for feticide, and 50 for neglect.

According to the affidavit, Patel went to a local hospital in July 2013, bleeding after a premature delivery — though she allegedly denied to the hospital staff that she gave birth at all. After several doctors confirmed that Patel had been pregnant and given birth, she admitted to the doctors that she miscarried at her home in Granger, and that the fetus wasn't moving or breathing.

Patel then told the medical staff that she placed the deceased fetus in a bag and left it in a dumpster behind a store. Although Patel didn't believe she was that far along, an autopsy found that the fetus was about 28 weeks. The medical examiner also claimed that the fetus wasn't dead when it delivered, but took a breath; however, this is currently in dispute.

In text messages from June 2013, Patel admitted that she was more than 60 days pregnant and going to terminate the pregnancy with two drugs she ordered online from Hong Kong, according to the affidavit. However, only one of the two drugs Patel took would have induced labor; the other drug only works if the pregnancy is fewer than nine weeks.

Yes, this is a bizarre and tragic case, but not entirely unusual, considering there are currently 38 states with fetal homicide laws on the books. Patel is the second woman in Indiana to be charged with fetal homicide, the first being Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who attempted suicide while eight months pregnant after her husband revealed he had another family and was leaving her. Shuai was rushed to the hospital and underwent a C-section, but the fetus died not long after. Patel was later charged with feticide.

The Legal Complications

Shuai's case ignited a maelstrom of backlash against the Indiana law, and she spent just one year in jail before being released. But Patel's case is a bit trickier than Shuai's, and the logic of her legal case may not entirely add up.

In Indiana, a person can only be charged with fetal homicide if she "knowingly or intentionally terminates a human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus." However, Patel can only be charged with neglect if the fetus was alive when she delivered it — which the affidavit claims is what happened. So, Patel is either guilty of neglect or feticide, but not both.

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As Sally Kohn at The Daily Beast points out, the state went after feticide in Patel's case to ensure that they can put her behind bars for either crime:

The legal knot here is dumbfounding. The State of Indiana intends to convict and incarcerate Purvi Patel one way or another, whether the fetus she delivered was alive or not—never mind the fact that the facts necessary for filing the one charge (that the fetus have been alive) entirely contradict the facts necessary for filing the other (that the fetus have been dead) and vice versa.

Although state-level feticide law don't apply to abortion, they continually blur the reproductive rights lines — and they may harm women more than protect them. It's never a good idea to induce an abortion on your own, but should pregnant women be penalized when their pregnancies go awry and they need medical attention, whether or not they self-induced an abortion, attempted suicide or used drugs that caused a miscarriage?

In fact, laws such as Indiana's may deter pregnant women who need either physical or mental health attention from seeking help, in fear of getting arrested in the process.

Many reproductive rights activists are speaking out against Indiana's feticide law, including Lynn Paltrow, founder of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who's urging Indiana to drop the case against Patel. This week, Paltrow said in a statement:

The outcome of this pregnancy was tragic. It was also tragic that Ms. Patel did not get the appropriate supportive medical care she so desperately needed. That it has become a criminal case is inappropriate, immoral, cruel and sets a dangerous new precedent ... We cannot afford to deter a woman from seeking reproductive health care.

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