WORD (Women Organized to Resist and Defend) joins the call to demand freedom for Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indian-American woman in Indiana who was outrageously sentenced to 41 years for miscarrying a pregnancy. This is the first conviction under a state’s feticide law against the pregnant woman herself, rather than a third party, for which the laws were originally intended. Using inconclusive evidence, Purvi was convicted on two contradictory charges: “feticide” and “neglect of a dependent.” “Feticide” requires that the fetus was still in the womb, unborn, while “neglect” requires that the child was born before it was neglected. It is outrageous that a prosecutor not only brought these charges in the first place, but that a jury found her guilty, and a judge moved forward with sentencing.
Most of the feticide laws that have been enacted now in 38 states were designed to protect pregnant women from crimes of violence, like domestic violence or car accidents, not to protect fetuses from pregnant women. The interpretation of the feticide statute in Indiana is setting a dangerous precedent. The door is now open for other state fetal homicide laws to be used to prosecute the very women that the laws were supposedly designed to protect.
In 2004 a federal law was passed, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, inspired by the California murder of Laci Peterson, who was killed by her husband when she was seven months pregnant. The federal feticide law and most state fetal homicide laws have specific exemptions clarifying that these statutes do not apply to pregnant women with respect to their own fetuses. But Indiana’s feticide law from 1979 does not have such an exemption for pregnant women making it legally possible for a woman to be jailed in Indiana for having an abortion or a miscarriage.
Although Patel is the first woman to be convicted for feticide of her own fetus, many more women have been charged and prosecuted with feticide in the past. Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and Jeanne Flavin, a sociology professor at Fordham University, chronicled similar cases from 1973 to 2005, and found hundreds of arrests and charges against pregnant women for harming their fetuses. Paltrow and Flavin show how the feticide laws that were used against women who engaged in self-destructive acts, like suicide or drug use, are racist in nature and disproportionately target African-American women, poor women and women in the South. ("Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973-2005: Implications for Women's Legal Status and Public Health," published by the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, January 15, 2013)
Another Indiana case that invoked the feticide statute recently involved a woman named Bei Bei Shuai, who attempted to commit suicide in 2010, and was eventually charged with the murder and attempted feticide of her then-unborn fetus. The charges were eventually dropped, but only after she had spent over a year in jail.
The fact that the only two women in Indiana prosecuted for committing feticide against their own fetus are Asian American is part of an overall targeting of Asian and Asian-American women by right-wing opponents of reproductive rights. There are now eight U.S. states with laws prohibiting "sex-selective abortion." Laws against sex-selective abortion have been considered by 21 additional states and by the federal government. Sex-selective abortion bans are an increasingly common form of abortion ban; they were the second-most proposed abortion ban in the United States in 2014. This is part of a racist campaign that wrongfully accuses Asian American women of engaging in this practice.
A resolution passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors prohibiting such legislation in the city explains: "Lawmakers across the country have successfully advocated for sex-selective abortion bans by perpetuating false and harmful racial stereotypes that such laws are necessary to stop an influx of Asian immigrants from spreading this practice and that Asian American communities do not value the lives of women ... Sex-selective abortion bans encourage racial profiling of women by some medical providers, can lead to the denial of reproductive health care services to women by some medical providers, and lead to further stigmatization of women, particularly Asian American women ..."
The implications of the conviction of Purvi Patel are disturbing.
Fetal homicide statutes that do not exempt pregnant women have been shown to increase infant mortality rates, according to Andrew S. Murphy, a law professor from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Murphy’s research and public health and medical experts agree that women whose actions endanger their own fetus need treatment, not incarceration. ("A Survey of State Fetal Homicide Laws and Their Potential Applicability to Pregnant Women Who Harm Their Own Fetuses," published by the Indiana Law Journal, April 15, 2015)
A clear link has been found between high rates of maternal deaths and highly restrictive anti-abortion policies. ("Evaluating Priorities: Measuring Women's and Children's Health and Well-being against Abortion Restrictions in the State," conducted by Ibis Reproductive Health and Center for Reproductive Rights in 2014) Because it is now legally possible for a woman to be jailed in Indiana for having either an abortion or a miscarriage, how much more will the death rate of women increase?
Also, the use of feticide laws to prosecute pregnant women support the right-wing, anti-women campaign taking place to undo the gains of Roe v Wade and totally deny women in the United States the right to an abortion.
What a woman does with her own body is not a moral or ethical question, rather, it is a question of women’s health. A woman who experiences a miscarriage needs medical care, not incarceration. A woman who commits self-destructive acts while pregnant needs medical treatment, not prosecution. All women should have access to effective birth control and the right to an abortion.
WORD stands with Purvi Patel and all pregnant women who have the right to choose, the right to miscarry, the right to free healthcare on demand, and the right to protection, not prosecution.
Free Purvi Patel Now!