Purvi Patel, the Indian-American woman sentenced to 20 years for feticide and neglect of a dependent, has been in the Indiana Women’s Prison for 14 months, but advocates have not forgotten her or the impact that her conviction has on the health and reproductive rights of pregnant women nationwide. Today (May 23), from 2 to 3 p.m. ET, the Indiana Court of Appeals is hearing oral arguments in the case.
Patel’s ordeal began in July 2013 when she sought medical attention at an emergency room in South Bend, Indiana, complaining of vaginal bleeding. Patel revealed that she had been pregnant, had suffered a miscarriage, and had left the baby’s body in a dumpster. Within hours after surgery as she awoke from anesthesia, Patel found herself face-to-face with a police officer. According to Patel’s appellate brief [PDF], which recounts her videotaped interrogation, Patel claimed that the baby was not moving and that she was in shock and “couldn’t function for like 10, 15 minutes afterward.” Shortly thereafter, the state of Indiana charged her on two ostensibly conflicting counts: feticide and neglect of a dependent. During the trial, the jury saw text messages between Patel and a friend, which revealed that Patel had taken pills to induce an abortion.
After a jury found her guilty on both counts, Patel was sentenced to prison in March 2015. She immediately filed an appeal. A range of organizations and experts—from practitioners in the health and bioethics field, to Asian and Pacific Islander groups, to Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights—filed amicus briefs in support of her appeal.
A Threat to All Pregnant Women and a Backdoor Attempt to Criminalize Abortion
At today’s hearing, Patel’s lawyers are expected to argue that there is no evidence to sustain the neglect-of-a-dependent charge because Patel was neither aware that a live birth had occurred nor was she consciously aware of how to increase the chances of the baby’s survival. In addition, Patel’s lawyers argue that the feticide law in Indiana does not permit the prosecution of a pregnant woman for self-inducing an abortion.
In fact, feticide laws—38 states currently have them on the books—are intended to protect the lives of the mother and her unborn children against attacks by third parties. Reproductive rights advocates have long been concerned that these laws are increasingly being interpreted to confer a specific legal status and rights to a fetus, and criminalize the actions of a woman vis-à-vis the fetus, which is how Indiana made its case against Patel.
Indeed, if Patel’s conviction is upheld, Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates of Pregnant Women, warns that “…[T]he state of Indiana would be the first in the nation to declare that a feticide law is actually an abortion criminalization law that permits the punishment of the woman herself.” In other words, state feticide laws such as the one in Indiana are backdoor attempts to criminalize abortion and to chip away at the rights guaranteed under Roe v. Wade.
Advocates have also pointed out the dangerous implications of Patel’s treatment for the health care of other pregnant women. If a woman fears that she might face suspicion and police investigation while seeking medical attention for any pregnancy outcome, she may be less likely to seek health care. This risk increases with poor women, those with mental-health concerns, immigrant women and women of color who often face challenges in obtaining health care in the first place.
The Role of Racial and Cultural Bias
Another element that many advocates point to is the role of racial and cultural stereotypes at play in cases like Patel’s. “There is starting to be evidence regarding the disproportionate prosecution and sentencing of Asian women in terms of neonaticide and feticide cases,” says Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (Panna Krom). “This is not surprising given the inaccurate stereotype that Asian-American women make poor reproductive choices because of cultural norms.”
Neha Gill, the executive director of Apna Ghar, a Chicago-based nonprofit which seeks to end gender violence, agrees. “In Purvi’s case, public misconceptions about South Asian cultural views of sexuality and premarital sex intersected with an intense zeal to police women’s bodies and their pregnancy outcomes in a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects people of color. All of these factors, combined together, led to a disastrous outcome for Purvi.”
There is a distinct pattern emerging that reflects the criminalization of Asian women in feticide and neonaticide cases. First, there is the broader context of restrictions on reproductive rights, which include a set of laws called sex-selection abortion bans that have a particular focus on Asian women. Proponents of these laws, passed in eight states already, exploit the stereotype that Asian-American women would choose to abort female fetuses due to a supposed cultural preference for sons. Indeed, hearings related to a sex-selective abortion ban were occurring in Indiana when Patel’s case was being prosecuted. (That ban has since been included in a broader set of restrictions signed into law by Indiana’s governor earlier this year).
Additionally, there are several incidents of prosecution and sentencing that have affected Asian-American women in particular. In Indiana, prosecutors charged Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression, with attempted feticide in 2011. Shuai, who tried to commit suicide, survived while the fetus did not. The state held Shuai in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached.
In Connecticut, Panna Krom, a first-generation Cambodian-American woman, is serving an 18-year sentence for drowning her child when she was 16 years old. Krom’s lawyer is currently seeking a clemency request from the state, which points to several factors including shorter prison sentences conferred upon women in similar situations. And in just the year after Patel’s sentencing, two South Asian women in New York—Nausheen Rahman in Staten Island and Sharon Seudat in Long Island—have been charged with second degree murder in situations that seem quite factually similar to Patel’s.
Whether Asian-American women are being disproportionately targeted under feticide and neonaticide laws requires further data collection and analysis, but it is important to note that there are some cases where non-Asian women are treated differently by the legal system. Take the case of Alicia Keir, a White woman from Hammond, Indiana, who gave birth on board a cruise ship. The cleaning staff found a baby’s dead body under one of the beds in Keir’s cabin. In April 2015, Keir was charged with involuntary manslaughter by the state of Indiana. She pleaded guilty and told the judge that she should have gotten help after delivering the baby. Yet Keir was sentenced to one day in prison and received two years on supervised release. While the facts of Keir’s case are not entirely similar to that of Patel’s, it is important to note the disparities in terms of the sentences the two women received, and the standards used to determine whether the women had neglected to provide care after birth.
The treatment of Patel in Indiana has mobilized Asian- and South Asian-American women and organizations. Groups like Apna Ghar in Chicago have organized panels and discussion sessions to raise awareness about the impact of Patel’s case. NAPAWF is holding a rally outside of the Indiana Court of Appeals at 1:15 and is encouraging women to attend the oral arguments in person or online. They urge supporters to use the #FreePurvi hashtag on social media. Advocates are certain that the appellate court’s decision will have a major impact on Patel’s life—and on the rights of women all around the nation.
Deepa Iyer is a South Asian-American writer, activist and lawyer. She is the author of “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future” (New Press). Iyer served as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for a decade. She is a member of the board of directors of Colorlines’ publisher, Race Forward. Follow her @dviyer.