Last Monday, a woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for having a miscarriage.
Her name is Purvi Patel and she is 33-years-old.
In July 2013, she went to an Indiana hospital, telling doctors she had a miscarriage. She was bleeding and needed help. When doctors asked her about the remains, Patel said she tried to revive it but she didn’t know what to do, and allegedly not wanting to upset her parents who she lives with, she disposed of the stillborn fetus in a dumpster. Police recovered the body, which was reported as being anywhere from 23-30 weeks gestation. (This was debated between the pathologists for the defense and the prosecution.) Police also recovered a text message from Patel’s phone discussing ordering abortion-inducing pills online and one reading, “Just lost the baby.” However, prosecutors never proved she actually took these drugs nor that they were used in the termination of the pregnancy.
According to the New York Times, Patel was charged with felony child neglect and feticide. While these charges seem contradictory (how can you neglect something that was aborted?), it was reported that citizens in Indiana can be charged with feticide for attempted harm to a fetus, even if the fetus survives. So, as the Times puts it, she was charged for “letting her baby die after the self-abortion failed.” That is, of course, if she really did try to self-abort.
There have been many cases of mothers, intentionally or accidentally, killing their children. “If this case were only about a woman who clearly gave birth to a live baby and then killed her child, it would be clear cut,” writes NYT reporter Emily Bazelon. After a child is born, the state has a right to protect its life. But whether this fetus was alive at birth is widely contested, and pathologists for the defense and prosecution differ on their interpretations of the facts. Was the fetus at 23-24 weeks, meaning its lungs had not fully developed and wouldn’t have been functioning? Or was it at upwards of 30 weeks, which would make it fully developed and “past the point of viability”, making it born alive?
To answer this question, the prosecution turned to a centuries old “lung-float test” which was discredited over 100 years ago. But many found the prosecution’s medical evidence inconclusive. Gregory J. Davis—assistant state medical examiner for Kentucky and a professor of pathology and lab medicine at the Universiy of Kentucky– called it “nonspecific” and “dead wrong” in an interview with Bazelon:
“Or even if we agree hypothetically that the baby took a breath, that doesn’t mean Ms. Patel did anything wrong. What if she was scared and bleeding herself, and she didn’t clamp the cord in time, because she didn’t know how, and the baby died?”
This is when, as Bazelon points out, we move from a trial about giving birth to a fight about reproduction and pregnancy itself.
Would the sentence in Indiana been as harsh if Patel had simply miscarried and disposed of the fetus, with no question of self-abortion? Would it have been as harsh if she hadn’t disposed of the fetus the way she did? It’s hard to tell, considering Indiana’s recent track record, but we do know this is the first time any woman in the United States has been charged and convicted using a state feticide law.
If Patel’s story hasn’t moved you already, this is when you should start caring.
According to the New York Times, around 38 states have feticide laws in place. This means we could start seeing more cases and convictions like Patel’s across the country. And that is scary.
Feticide laws were initially enacted to (allegedly) protect women from abusive third parties. But other women have been arrested as well for numerous reasons ranging from failed suicide attempts to refusing recommended C-sections to drug-related problems, more abortion pills ordered online, and even for falling down the stairs—an action reported as intentional to induce an abortion by the hospital when the woman went to seek care. However, these charges were dropped, lessened, or settled.
None of these women have received the 20-year sentence that now faces Purvi Patel, and while her personal story is extremely troubling, more frightening still is the precedent set by this conviction.
Lynn M. Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, wrote, “What the Patel case demonstrates is that both women who have abortions and those who experience pregnancy loss may now be subject to investigation, arrest, public trial and incarceration.”
While men play a vital role in causing pregnancy, women alone must carry the fetus. Women alone must go through the process of giving birth. And it seems that women alone must time and time again be punished for their natural, God-given ability to do so. Women are stripped of their healthcare and benefits because of their potential for pregnancy. Then, women are made to fight for those things– for birth control, for family planning, for child care, for the right to be a mother and be an employee simultaneously. Women are made to fight to breast-feed where they need to. Women are made to fight for protection in their own homes, on their college campuses, on their streets and now in their court of law.
And now it is also women, like Purvi Patel, who are sentenced to 20 years in prison because of something they cannot control, something their bodies are made to do whether they like it or not, and something she probably didn’t do in the first place.
Yes, Patel’s story is disturbing. The image of the bleeding woman in the hospital, the fetus in the dumpster. The way she has been portrayed certainly makes her look the villain. But the evidence presented does not tell me without a doubt this woman was neglectful and deserves to be imprisoned. It mostly just brings up a lot of questions:
If Patel was beginning to miscarry, did she, as Davis asked, simply make a mistake? If she only knew she was pregnant for three weeks before she miscarried, any number of things could have been going wrong and she wouldn’t have known because she didn’t visit a doctor. Was she scared? Did she know what was happening?
If Patel was purposefully trying to end her pregnancy, despite no actual evidence of abortion drug use, did she have another option? Perhaps she did not want the child in the first place. Perhaps she wanted a legal abortion, but her partner or family or cultural or religious beliefs forbade her. It has been reported that Patel lived with her parents and bedridden grandparents, possibly even helping as their caretaker. Maybe she felt ashamed or afraid her family would find out. Maybe she was feeling threatened or abandoned or pressured by the married coworker who allegedly helped create the fetus in the first place. Or maybe she was alone.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that 61% of women in Indiana do not have access to abortion services and 93% of counties don’t offer abortion services. According to Planned Parenthood’s medical services search, the nearest clinic that provided abortion services was 44 miles away from her home in Granger, IN.
Maybe, if Patel actually did use self-abortion measures, she did so because she ran out of time or a clinic couldn’t fit her in. Maybe she couldn’t make the two trips to see her doctor, since Indiana requires counseling services 18 hours before the procedure. Maybe it’s because public funding and certain Indiana exchanges under the Affordable Care Act only cover abortion in cases when the woman’s life is endangered, her health is severely compromised or in the case of rape or incest, so she couldn’t afford it. Or maybe she didn’t want it going on her insurance record or bank statement because someone would see it. Or maybe if she could make it to the doctor, she was scared or confused after seeing the picture from the ultrasound the state requires women to undergo before the procedure.
Maybe she felt isolated by her state, isolated by her family, and isolated by her own body – and felt she had no choice. Or maybe she miscarried and didn’t know what to do.
That is an awful lot of maybes.
Too many, it seems to me, to prove someone is truly neglectful, truly at fault.
But why did this even have to happen in the first place? Is it, as the prosecution claim, that Purvi Patel deliberately chose not to go to a doctor, and deliberately wanted to neglect the fetus and cause its “death”? Patel has no criminal history, no other reported evidence of abuse. There is also no evidence Patel actually bought or used the abortion drugs, only the text message discussing them.
Many women, especially women of color, who seek out abortions after becoming pregnant, are often criticized for how “dumb or poor or slutty” they are for getting pregnant in the first place. Anti-abortion activists claim the ultrasounds and the waiting periods often required by law are for a woman’s own good, since women are too “dumb or poor or slutty” to realize what they are doing when they seek an abortion.
And yet, in Patel’s case, it seems she is too smart and too wealthy, to be seen as innocent.
“You, Miss Patel, are an educated woman of considerable means. If you wished to terminate your pregnancy safely and legally, you could have done so,” said St. Joseph Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Hurley during her sentencing. So does that mean if she were stupid and poor she would have been forgiven? Does this mean rich, smart people don’t have feelings or fears?
This contradiction is a micro example of our country’s war on abortion, which is really, when it comes down to it, a war on women. A woman goes through the physical and emotional challenges of getting pregnant and then miscarrying, and then we put her in prison? Even if Patel was truly neglectful and did intentionally cause harm to her potential child, it makes me wonder, what drove her to that choice? After all, she did have the choice get a legal abortion. Didn’t she?
The war on women has created numerous dangerous and outrageous laws, supported by politicians, ministers, and lobbyists who are obsessed with limiting a woman’s right to choose. These “warriors for life” reduce women down to their very basic parts, their very basic capability of housing and growing a potential life, as if women are no more than incubators or Easy Bake Ovens.
But, even more horrifyingly, this war on women has also created situations like that of Purvi Patel. The reason this 33-year-old woman is in jail is not because she is guilty of child neglect or feticide. She is in jail because Indiana and many other states just like it have created a system that leaves women with no choice. And now that system is taking a law intended to protect women and using it against women.
The stigma against abortion (created by anti-abortion supporters) is so great, many women who are capable of procuring an abortion feel too threatened or ashamed to get the procedures they need. Abortion remains a legal choice, but it is so restricted that for many, abortion is not a real choice. Politicians have created a world in which safe, legal abortion can’t be the answer for many, many women, and they are doing it on purpose.
That is the real crime here, not Purvi Patel’s miscarriage.
So the questions we ask should not be about if she took abortion pills or if she killed her child or if the fetus’ lungs had breathed one breath of life. We should be asking, why are women driven to such extremes in a country that not only has safe and legal abortion services, but also safe and legal birth control options that would make abortion obsolete? And we should be asking why a woman who arrived at the hospital bleeding heavily with a protruding umbilical cord and asking for help after miscarrying is now serving 20 years in prison?
We should also be asking why anti-abortion activists make more noise than the nearly 1 million women who receive safe and legal abortions every year in the United States? Why does it seem like everyone in America hates abortion when many people support safe and legal options for abortion, and many people don’t even choose a side in the pro-life/pro-choice debate? Why do we let the fears of a few affect the lives of many? Why would we rather believe lies than seek the truth?
The pro-life movement has thrived because pro-choicers have not done enough to keep the truth alive. So what can we do? We can protect the rights of women by speaking out and speaking up. We can help by talking to our representatives, talking to our relatives and religious leaders, and talking to each other. We can help by calling out lies and spreading the truth: Safe and accessible legal abortion, birth control, and prenatal care are good for women, good for families, and good America.
Purvi Patel is the first prisoner in the war on women. If we do not act, she will not be the last.