Twenty Years in Prison for Miscarrying? The Case of Purvi Patel and the Criminalization of Pregnancy

While Indiana has been in the spotlight over its new anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law, another state controversy is brewing. On Monday, Purvi Patel became the first person in U.S. history sentenced to prison for feticide for what the state said was an attempt to end her own pregnancy. While Patel says she had a miscarriage, delivering a stillborn fetus, prosecutors accused her of taking drugs to induce an abortion, even though no drugs were found in her system. They also used a discredited test to claim the fetus was born alive. Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison. We look at her case amidst the rising tide of anti-choice laws and the criminalization of pregnancy with Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

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AMY GOODMAN: “Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth?” Neil Young. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Indiana, which has been in the spotlight this week over its new anti-LGBT, so-called, “religious freedom law.” But, the historic application of another law in the state has received far less attention. On Monday, Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman, became the first person in U.S. history sentenced to prison for feticide, for ending her own pregnancy. In 2013, Patel arrived at a hospital, bleeding. She told doctors she had had a miscarriage and disposed of her stillborn fetus in a trash receptacle. Under questioning by police, Patel said she had believed she was about two months pregnant. After miscarrying in the bathroom, she said she tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate the fetus, which wasn’t moving. She told police, “I assumed because the baby was dead there was nothing to do.” Bleeding, in shock, and not wanting her conservative Hindu parents to find out, she disposed of the fetus and went to the hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: Prosecutors would later accuse Patel of taking drugs to try to end her pregnancy, based on text messages to a friend where she discussed buying the drugs online. But no evidence of abortion drugs was found in her body. The prosecutors also used a discredited “float test” to claim Purvi Patel’s fetus, which they said was between 25 and 28 weeks, was born alive. So, in addition to feticide, Patel was charged and convicted of “neglect of a dependent.” On Monday, a judge sentenced Patel to serve 20 years in prison. In total, her sentences actually add up to 41 years, but will be served but will be served concurrently, with 10 years suspended.

The sentencing comes amidst a growing, ongoing crackdown on reproductive rights. According to RH Reality Check, lawmakers in states across the country have introduced at least 235 bills to restrict abortion in 2015 alone. To talk more about this issue we are joined here in New York by Lynn Paltrow, Founder and Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. What happened to Purvi Patel?

LYNN PALTROW: Well, Purvi Patel is an amazing example of the fact that it’s not just reproductive rights that are under attack, it is the personhood of people who can get pregnant, that this case demonstrates that we are not going back to some — going through some time warp to a time before Roe, that women’s pregnancies are now becoming the subject of policing, prosecution, and severe sentences in an age of mass incarceration. So, here’s a woman who goes to the hospital for help because she has a miscarriage, and ends up being sentenced to jail for 20 years. They charge her with feticide, and originally people were very confused. It’s like, how can you be charged with both feticide and neglect of a dependent because feticide is understood as causing the death of a fetus, but the prosecutors says, in Indiana, no, our law means any deliberate attempt by a woman to terminate her own pregnancy is a crime. It didn’t succeed, so we convinced — they then used —- deliberately used a invalid scientific test to convince the jury that the baby had been born alive and neglected. So, here you have -—

AMY GOODMAN: What is the float test?

LYNN PALTROW: Float test, as I understand it — and Dr. Gregory Davis at the University of Kentucky is the real expert — is that —- it’s a test that suggests that you take the lungs out of the fetus, or the newborn, and if they float, there was air in them, and the baby took a breath. However, it has been known for a hundred years that air can get into lungs in other ways. So, it is an invalid test used, for example, in countries like El Salvador to convict women of illegal abortion who have actually suffered miscarriages and stillbirths. But, the Indiana case says, look, if you are a woman who even does re—- has a miscarriage and has done research to see if, perhaps, you could have had an abortion — women who suffer miscarriage and stillbirth, and women that have precipitous home births all now can go to jail, essentially, as murderers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain then, what is it about Indiana’s feticide law that enabled the prosecutors to convict Purvi on both these, seemingly contradictory, counts: neglect of a dependent and feticide? And is it very similar in other states or anywhere?

LYNN PALTROW: Well, I would say there is nothing unique about Indiana’s feticide law. What is unique is the judge allowed this case to go forward in spite of a motion to dismiss, in spite — rejected an amicus brief that we prepare on behalf of numerous health groups. Thirty-eight states have feticide laws. Many of them — most of them explicitly say what they all were passed — how they were all passed, which is, they were all past or amended in the wake of violence against pregnant women, with the promise that it would protect pregnant women and so-called unborn children from violence. In fact, in many states, as my research with Jeanne Flavin has shown, it has been used to arrest woman who delayed having Cesarean surgery. A woman in Iowa who fell down a flight of stairs while she was pregnant was arrested for attempted feticide. Indiana’s law is somewhat different from other states, but it is not really about the language of the statute, it’s about the commitment of the prosecutors and the state to use it as a mechanism for depriving pregnant women of their human rights.