Purvi Patel Conviction Contradicts "Pro-Life" Claims of 'Protecting, Not Punishing' Women

Statement of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW)
Contact: Lynn Paltrow, NAPW (212) 255-9252
info@advocatesforpregnantwomen.org

Feb. 4, 2015 — Yesterday, an Indiana jury found Purvi Patel guilty of two contradictory crimes: neglect of a child and feticide. In this case, Indiana prosecutors equated neglect of a newborn with terminating a pregnancy and claimed the state has the right to lock up women suspected of attempting a self-abortion for as much as 70 years.

This case and the verdict should send shockwaves through everyone who has an opinion about the right to choose abortion. So-called “pro-life” organizations and leaders have long claimed that the purpose of anti-abortion and feticide laws is to protect, not punish, women. For example, Americans United for Life argues that “pro-life legislators and pro-life leaders do not support the prosecution of women” and claims that “if Roe is overruled, no woman would be prosecuted for self-abortion.” However, a study published in 2013 documented that measures such as feticide laws are already being used to achieve such results and, like this case, disproportionately target low-income women and women of color.

Background

In July 2013, Purvi Patel arrived at the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Mishawaka, Indiana, bleeding and seeking help. She told health-care workers that she had miscarried, but did not bring the fetal remains with her – she had disposed of them in a trash bin near her workplace. Police found the remains, and Ms. Patel was arrested and charged with “neglect of a dependent” based on the claim that the baby was born alive and neglected. At the same time, she was also charged with feticide based on the claim that she intentionally terminated “her own pregnancy, by ingesting medication, with the intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”

Prior to the trial, the court rejected efforts by Ms. Patel’s counsel (and by NAPW through an amicus brief) to have the feticide charge dismissed. Counsel and NAPW explained that Indiana’s feticide law was never intended to criminalize women who have abortions or experience pregnancy losses. Rather, the law was intended to protect pregnant woman from third party violence. NAPW’s brief, eventually refused by the court, highlighted the harms to public health, mothers, families, and society of criminalizing abortion and putting women in jail. Indiana activists also challenged the feticide law before the trial began. They brought prosecutor Michael Dvorak petitions signed by more than 20,000 people insisting that the charge be dropped.

The Trial

The evidence presented at trial did not support the prosecution’s claims that Ms. Patel obtained and used medication to attempt to end her pregnancy, then went on to give birth to a baby she neglected. As activists with the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice (IRCRC) who attended the trial reported, the prosecutor provided no evidence of what medication, if any, Ms. Patel took that could have ended the pregnancy. News reports confirm that there was no agreement at trial even about how far along in pregnancy Ms. Patel was at the time her pregnancy ended, and suggested that part of her culpability came from the fact that she delivered the fetus at home rather than in a hospital setting.

IRCRC also reported that prosecutors were allowed to present the result of of the discredited and notoriously non-scientific “float test” to support their claim that the baby had been born alive. According to a recent report, experts have found that this test is unreliable.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors described the fetus as a “baby” found in a “dumpster.” Most people, however, have no idea what they are supposed to do if they have had a miscarriage or stillbirth outside of a health-care setting. For example, police stormed a couple’s home, following their inquiries about what they should to do with fetal remains from a miscarriage. Despite the fact that pregnancy loss is a common experience in the U.S. (up to 25% of early pregnancies end in miscarriage; 19% in stillbirths), it is a topic that many find difficult to discuss openly.

Lacking hard evidence, the prosecution relied on attacks on Ms. Patel’s character. IRCRC observers noted that the prosecutor asked the jury to judge Ms. Patel based on such things as not crying, not knowing her menstrual cycle, and texting a friend for support at the hospital.

Yesterday’s verdict makes clear that those who oppose abortion and support feticide laws – now on the books in 38 states – in fact, seek to punish women who attempt self-abortion. As reported by the NBC affiliate in South Bend, the case’s outcome sends the message that “there is no room in society today for do-it-yourself abortions.” In a country where anti-abortion laws are preventing women from obtaining abortion services, and women are forced to turn to self-help measures, we should expect that more and more women will be subjected to bedside police investigations, arrests, prosecutions, public shaming, and lengthy prison sentences.

Because the State of Indiana did not prove that there was a baby born alive who was then neglected, and because the State used this prosecution to set precedent for harsh punishment of women who have abortions or experience pregnancy losses, NAPW denounces this trial and will work to support the appeal in this case.