In a judicial decision that stunned reproductive rights advocates, the first woman in the U.S. was sentenced for feticide on Monday in Indiana, receiving a sentence of thirty years in prison. However, her sentence was suspended by ten years, so she is likely facing twenty years behind bars.
The fate of 33-year-old Purvi Patel was determined to be 20 years in prison on charges of feticide, an act that causes the death of a fetus, and neglect of a dependent. Of interest, the neglect of a dependent sentence was much steeper. She received a 30-year sentence on the felony neglect charge, 10 of which were suspended. A six-year sentence for feticide, or intentional death of a fetus, will be served concurrently with the neglect of a dependent charge.
Patel arrived at St. Joseph Hospital in Mishawaka, Indiana, in July 2013, complaining of severe vaginal bleeding. A daughter of a conservative Hindu family, sex outside of marriage was a sin that she did not wish to admit to, though she had been impregnated by a co-worker approximately 25 weeks earlier, prosecutors say. She never sought prenatal care for the pregnancy and panicked when she went into labor, defense attorneys argue, giving birth to a stillborn infant and throwing it in a dumpster. Prosecutors alleged the baby was not born dead but died within seconds of birth, likely a result of extreme prematurity.
Infants born around the 24-25 week mark are generally considered “viable” in the medical community, or capable of living, but not without significant intervention. They lack the ability to maintain body temperature and their lungs lack a substance called surfactant that allows them to breathe properly. While many states allow abortion prior to 20 weeks, and some even further along in pregnancy, it is still a very controversial issue with gray areas that leave both pro and anti-abortion activists up in arms.
Deepa Iyer, Activist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland’s Asian American Studies Program and former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, says this sentence is a step back in reproductive rights for women everywhere in the U.S. She also said this was not the first minority woman to be charged with feticide in Indiana, but that charge was dropped in 2011.
“Purvi Patel’s conviction amounts to punishment for having a miscarriage and then seeking medical care, something that no woman should worry would lead to jail time. Immigrant women of color, such as Bei Bei and Purvi, remain vulnerable to the exploitation of laws like these in a myriad of ways, as we have seen in how they have been treated by the state of Indiana. The cultural issues that the prosecution decided to drag into this case reflect stereotypes about Asian-American women and reproductive health which may not necessarily be true in this case.”
Prosecutors allege the Patel ingested some type of drug that caused her body to expel the baby, called an abortifacient, which sometimes can be something as common as an overdose of herbal remedies. However, toxicology reports failed to find any drugs in her body, and she eventually admitted to the Emergency Department Doctor that she had given birth and the baby had died and was now in a dumpster. The baby’s body was located soon afterward and Patel was then arrested.
[Photo Courtesy of IndiaWest]