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On Monday, the state of Indiana sentenced 33-year-old Purvi Patel to 20 years in prison on charges of feticide - an act that causes the death of a fetus - and neglect of a dependent. She received a 30-year-sentence on the felony neglect charge, 10 of which were suspended. A six-year sentence for feticide will be served concurrently.
Patel is the first woman in the U.S. to be charged, convicted and sentenced on a feticide charge. Reproductive rights activists are outraged.
“What this conviction means is that anti-abortion laws will be used to punish pregnant woman,” says Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director for National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Patel was arrested in July 2013 after she went to the emergency room, bleeding heavily, at St. Joseph Hospital in Mishawaka, Indiana. Despite initially denying the pregnancy, Patel eventually admitted to medical authorities that she had a miscarriage and threw the stillborn fetus in a dumpster.
According to Sue Ellen Braunlin, doctor and co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, Purvi was most likely 23-24 weeks pregnant, although prosecutors argued Patel was 25 weeks along in the state's opening argument. The prosecution confirmed on Monday that the baby died within seconds of being born.
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.
“Purvi Patel's conviction amounts to punishment for having a miscarriage and then seeking medical care, something that no woman should worry would lead to jail time,” said Deepa Iyer, Activist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland's Asian American Studies Program and former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together.
Despite Patel’s claim that she gave birth to a stillborn child, prosecutors argued that Patel gave birth to a live fetus and charged her with child neglect. Prosecutors also claimed that Patel ordered abortion-inducing drugs online and tried to terminate her pregnancy, but a toxicology report failed to find evidence of any drugs in her system.
“Instead of receiving the medical support and counseling she so desperately needed, the state charged her with murder and attempted feticide."
Patel is the first woman to be sentenced under Indiana’s feticide laws but she isn’t the first woman to be charged. In 2011, Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese American-woman, was held in prison for a year before feticide charges against her were dropped as part of a plea deal. Shuai was reportedly suffering from depression and tried to commit suicide while pregnant. She survived, but the fetus did not.
“Instead of receiving the medical support and counseling [Shuai] so desperately needed, the state charged her with murder and attempted feticide,” said Iyer.
Iyer says that the fact that the only two women charged with infanticide are Asian American is important to note because women of color often lack access to basic health care, counseling, and other reproductive health resources.
“Immigrant women of color, such as Bei Bei and Purvi, remain vulnerable to the exploitation of laws like these in a myriad of ways, as we have seen in how they have been treated by the state of Indiana,” said Iyer. “The cultural issues that the prosecution decided to drag into this case reflect stereotypes about Asian-American women and reproductive health which may not necessarily be true in this case.”
The Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law’s 2013 study on arrests and forced interventions on pregnant women in the U.S. found that approximately 71 percent were low-income women and 59 percent were women of color.
“For these women, the additional fear of arrest may altogether prevent them from seeking critical and necessary physical or mental health care during their pregnancy,” said Miriam Yeung, Executive Director of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.
Yeung believes that the Asian-American community needs to be more intentional and open about having conversations around reproductive and mental health. Asian-American youth, says Yeung, report the strongest amount of stigma around sex and reproductive health of any group. Asian-American women also have one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
“We know that our community is very progressive on the issue of abortion. 78% of AAPIs [Asian American Pacific Islanders] believe in some form of legal abortion," said Yeung. "However, despite our supportive values, we are not openly discussing reproductive health. As a community, we need to begin taking steps to de-stigmatize reproductive health and mental illness and integrate care and service around these issues into routine medical care.”