Last month in Indianapolis, we joined dozens of Asian-American women in a packed court room to bear witness to appellate court oral augments for Purvi Patel, a South Asian American woman who ended her pregnancy outside of a medical setting. She was subsequently arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. By the time her appeal was heard earlier this week, she had already served more than a year in prison.
Patel’s case is a heartbreaking example of the misuse of the law to punish women for their pregnancy outcomes. Despite the fact that no law in Indiana permits punishment of women for having or attempting to have an abortion, prosecutors misused the state’s feticide and neglect of a dependent laws in Patel’s case to re-criminalize abortion and punish Patel for experiencing a pregnancy loss.
Indiana prosecutors have used the state’s feticide law twice to punish pregnant women, the very people the law was designed to protect. Both times, prosecutors have brought charges against Asian-American women. It’s hard to see that as mere coincidence.
The other woman to be charged, Bei Bei Shuai, is a Chinese American whose pregnancy ended after a suicide attempt. Even though she sought medical help and did everything she could, including undergoing cesarean surgery, to help her baby live, she was arrested on murder and attempted feticide charges. She spent over one year in jail.
At the same time, a dramatically different outcome was granted to Alicia Keir, a white woman and Indiana resident, who plead guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her newborn. She was able to go home after just one day in jail.
The stories of these three women and the widely divergent sentencing provide an example of the dangerous discretion prosecutors wield in making decisions about whom to charge for what crimes with what penalties.
Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai are certainly not the only women — in Indiana or nationwide — whose pregnancies end with abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Moreover, women’s health and pregnancy outcomes can potentially be affected by a wide range of factors, including: the job a woman works, the health care she has access to, and the toxic chemicals in her environment. Unfortunately, the wide discretion prosecutors wield means only some of those women will face arrest and long sentences behind bars for their decisions, circumstances, and health outcomes while pregnant.
What happened to Patel and Shuai is part of a disturbing and unjust pattern. Research shows that the women who are most often punished in relationship to their pregnancies and the outcome of those pregnancies are disproportionately low-income women and women of color. In addition, women of color are more likely to be charged with felonies, which carry the harshest sentences and lifelong stigma.
The misuse of Indiana’s law to punish pregnant women puts all women at risk, especially women of color. We have to wonder why resources that could be used to address violence against women are instead being spent to put women in jail.
As Asian-American women, we stand with Purvi Patel as the court deliberates upon her future. In a courtroom in Hammond, Indiana, only 70 miles from Patel’s home in South Bend, Alicia Keir apparently received more compassion in her sentencing than was evident in Patel’s case. But all of these women, indeed all women in Indiana, deserve justice. We should support, not punish, people who are pregnant, and no one should fear arrest or jail for seeking health care, ending a pregnancy, or experiencing a pregnancy loss.
While the court deliberates, the Asian-American community, along with the country at large, will be watching and hoping that the court recognizes the danger of criminalizing pregnancy, and the humanity of Purvi Patel.
Nimra Chowdhry is a Reproductive Justice Fellow with the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) and Lisa K. Sangoi is a Staff Attorney for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.