A prosecutor and jury in Indiana decided that 33-year-old Purvi Patel didn’t simply have a still-born miscarriage. Instead, they charged that Patel induced labor and left the approximately 25-week fetus to die in a dumpster, and so she became the first American to be convicted and sentenced on charges of “feticide” — a chilling law that could force women who have miscarriages, as Patel might have, into prison.
In July, 2013, Patel was admitted to St. Joseph Hospital in Mishawaka, Indiana after she entered the emergency room bleeding. NBC News:
Despite initially denying the pregnancy, Patel eventually admitted to medical authorities that she had a miscarriage and threw the stillborn fetus in a dumpster. […]
Patel’s lawyers argued that she panicked when she realized she was in labor. Patel comes from a conservative Hindu family that looks down on sex outside marriage, and the pregnancy was a result of an affair Patel had with her co-worker.
The prosecution insisted Patel had taken labor-inducing drugs she bought online, but failed to introduce a toxicology report to prove it. In other words, there’s no evidence to support the claim, yet she was convicted anyway.
It turns out, however, the state couldn’t prove that the fetus died after being born, warranting a felony neglect charge covering postnatal babies, so the prosecution added the feticide charge on top of the neglect charge in order to cover all of its pre- and post-birth bases. The prosecutors were determined to convict Patel one way or another. Furthermore, the doctor who initially notified the police, couldn’t determine whether the fetus died before or after being born.
Does that sound hinky to you? It gets worse. Patel was initially questioned without legal counsel present. The age of the fetus wasn’t precisely determined. And her Miranda rights were never given. Cause for reasonable doubt is all over this case.
Patel maintains that she did not abandon a living baby. “I assumed because the baby was dead there was nothing to do,” Patel later told law enforcement officials. “I’ve never been in this situation. I’ve never been pregnant before.”
While she’s the first to be convicted, she’s not the first to be charged. Bei Bei Shuai tried to commit suicide in 2011. She survived but her fetus died as a consequence of the attempt. Indiana prosecutors charged Shuai with feticide and murder. Meanwhile, 300 other women have been arrested nationwide, while only one man had been arrested in the context of alleged spousal abuse leading to a miscarriage. In all, 35 states have some form of feticide law, recognizing it as homicide, and in 25 of those states feticide applies to fetuses beginning at conception.
The impact of these laws can’t be understated. While there might be cause for charges in extreme cases or spousal abuse situations, the tragedy of a miscarriage, especially among poorer women, is only augmented by the stress of potentially being incarcerated if there’s even the slightest hint of unusual circumstances. How many women have been irreparably harmed because they were too intimidated or frightened to seek medical help after a miscarriage? And what does this say about the trajectory of anti-abortion laws? Clearly the eventual endgame will be to prosecute women who seek and acquire abortions.