Purvi Patel, a victim of anti-woman laws
An Indiana appeals court on Friday threw out the most serious conviction of Purvi Patel, the first US woman to be sent to prison for inducing her own abortion, and reduced the severity of the other charge of which she was convicted, with a rebuke for the prosecutors who sought furiously to convict her of fetal homicide.
The ruling will cut at least a decade off Patel’s prison sentence, and probably more. Patel, whose name has become a touchstone in the nation’s abortion debate, has served a little over a year of her 20-year prison sentence for child neglect and feticide. Both convictions stemmed from her 2013 self-abortion attempt, which ended in a miscarriage.
In a 42-page ruling, by Judge Terry A Crone, the court reduced the child neglect charge by an order of magnitude. And it reproached prosecutors for charging Patel under the state’s 2009 feticide law, saying there was no evidence that lawmakers intended the law to punish pregnant women. Indiana passed the measure in 2009 after a pregnant woman was shot and lost the twins she was carrying.
“Given that the legislature decriminalized abortion with respect to pregnant women only two years before it enacted the feticide statute, we conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women,” the decision declared. “Therefore, we vacate Patel’s feticide conviction.”
Patel’s conviction, in 2015, made her a national symbol in the debate swirling around abortion. Last week, when Donald Trump selected the Indiana governor, Mike Pence, as his partner on the Republican presidential ticket, many abortion rights groups invoked Patel’s name as a cautionary tale. Trump has said women who have illegal abortions ought to face “some form of punishment”. And activists had prevailed upon Pence to clarify the 2009 law used to convict her, without success.
The ruling was not a uniform victory for Patel. The court held that the state had mounted sufficient evidence to show Patel knew the infant was born alive. Patel’s appeals team had challenged the integrity of the forensic test, the controversial “lung float test”, that prosecutors used to argue the infant was not stillborn. But the court agreed with Patel that the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the infant could have survived. It reduced her child neglect conviction from a class A felony to a class D.
“The Indiana court of appeals … ultimately failed Purvi Patel,” Yamani Hernandez, the director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said Friday. “People of color are bearing the brunt of unscientific laws and misplaced moral outrage against abortion, which is blurring into the territory of miscarriage, putting any pregnant person at risk of prosecution and incarceration. It needs to stop, and the decision didn’t go far enough to restore full justice for Purvi Patel.”
A jury convicted Patel in 2015, and in May of this year, a team of volunteer attorneys appealed against her conviction.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Patel gave birth to a 25-week-old live infant that could have survived if Patel had sought medical attention instead of abandoning the infant. Patel’s attorneys, who disputed the infant’s gestational age, argued the infant was stillborn, and not developed enough to survive outside the womb no matter what Patel did.
Patel’s case quickly became a flashpoint in the country’s heated debate over abortion access. The prosecution painted Patel as hard-hearted and calculating. Women’s rights advocates countered that Indiana’s numerous restrictions on abortion had prevented Patel from terminating her pregnancy in a clinic, and they fingered her trial as part of a pattern of overzealous prosecutions against women who suffer miscarriages.
Supporters of Patel argued it was a paradox that she should be charged with both feticide – the killing of a fetus that is still in the womb – and child neglect, a charge that requires the infant to have been born, and born alive.
Patel was nevertheless convicted on both counts. Judge Elizabeth Hurley sentenced Patel to serve 20 years in prison: 30 years in prison for child neglect and six years for feticide, to run concurrently, with 10 years of the neglect sentence suspended. Neither conviction carried a mandatory prison term.
Under Friday’s ruling, Hurley will re-sentence Patel for a lesser charge of child neglect.
The ruling comes as a growing number of women in the US face prosecution for their behavior or actions during pregnancy. Groups such as the National Advocates for Pregnant Women have counted hundreds of cases in which prosecutors charged women with criminal offenses for having “suspicious miscarriages”, using banned substances during their pregnancies, or trying to induce their own abortions.
Often, the women are charged under laws that were intended to increase the penalties for harming a pregnant woman, such as in an assault or a car accident.
A few women, like Patel, have been prosecuted under such laws for trying to induce their own abortion – even in cases where it would be legal for them to receive an abortion in a clinic. Under an expansive interpretation of fetal homicide and other laws, Jill Adams, a Berkeley Law researcher who oversees the Self-Induced Abortion Legal Team, has estimated that a woman who tries to end her own pregnancy may be violating any one of 40 different statutes.
Patel, who is unmarried, was hiding her pregnancy from her devout Hindu parents in 2013 when she purchased abortion-inducing drugs from an online pharmacy. The pills caused her to miscarry, and on 13 July Patel arrived with heavy bleeding at the St Joseph’s regional medical center.
She required emergency surgery to remove the placenta. At first, Patel denied to doctors that she had been pregnant. She soon told them that she had given birth to a stillborn, which she tried to resuscitate, and placed the body in a dumpster.
Doctors at the hospital called the police. Investigators eventually found the remains, and St Joseph County prosecutors charged Patel with the two felony counts. She was arrested in late July 2013.
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