Published On : Thu, Apr 9th, 2015

Indian Woman Purvi Patel awarded 20 years prison sentence for ‘miscarriage’

Purvi Patel

After several months of pre-trials, Patel was finally charged with foeticide and neglecting a dependent. Her trial began in September 2014, and the prosecution consistently claimed that the infant boy that Patel gave birth to was alive, and had taken a few breaths before being discarded. Had Patel delivered in a hospital, the child could have been saved.

Patel’s case hinged on whether the prosecution could prove that the infant was alive. If he was born dead, then Patel would be charged with foeticide; if he had indeed taken a breath or two after delivery, Patel would have been accused of neglect. According to activists campaigning for Patel, the two charges were mutually exclusive, because “each charge negates the possibility of the other”.

When the jury delivered its decision, however, Patel was found guilty on both counts.

The controversy

Patel’s case caught the attention of activists and media across the US and beyond, because of an intense battle between pro- and anti abortion groups.

Purvi Patel, 33,  should have been in the hospital receiving medical attention and care. She should be undergoing counseling and therapy because any Gynaecologist will tell you that having a miscarriage, which means giving premature birth to a still born foetus, is physically, mentally and emotionally traumatic for a woman, Specially a first timer. But Purvi is making history by becoming  the first woman in US to be convicted and sentenced for killing a foetus. A court in the US state of Indiana has awarded her a 20-year jail term for feticide and neglect of a dependent, despite her claims that she gave birth to a stillborn baby.

Patel had earlier concealed her pregnancy as she was from a conservative Hindu family and did not want her parents to know about it. Later when she realised she was in labour she panicked and rushed to the hospital. While the prosecutors claimed that she was 25 weeks pregnant, activists said she was most likely to have been 23-24 weeks pregnant.

Purvi had realised she was pregnant in mid-2013 but had concealed the fact from her family.  In July, she suddenly went into labour and ‘delivered’ the baby in her bathroom.  According to Patel’s own account of the events, she had a sudden miscarriage and when the foetus was born, it did not seem to be moving or breathing. In shock and unsure of what to do, Patel claims she tried to resuscitate the infant, and when it didn’t work, she  wrapped the body in paper towels and then put it in plastic bags. She  placed it in a trash receptacle behind a restaurant that her family owns.

Soon after, faced with heavy vaginal bleeding, Patel went to a hospital for help, where she first denied that she had been pregnant and later, admitting that she’d had a miscarriage, claimed she did not know how far along she was in her pregnancy. What happened later was strange indeed. The American Doctor, who should have been attending on Purvi himself went in search of the foetus scouring dumpsters. When the foetus was finally found , autopsy reports claimed it was 24-28 weeks old. (This man is known for his anti – abortion rigid stance).

An affidavit filed after police investigations claimed, however, that this was not a case of miscarriage: in June 2013, Patel had allegedly exchanged text messages with a friend in which she mentioned that she was at least 60 days into her pregnancy and that she intended to terminate it with two drugs that she had ordered online from Hong Kong. However, a toxicologist who testified in her case claimed that no presence of those drugs was found in Patel’s blood samples after the abortion.

Abortion is technically legal in the US, but each state is allowed to restrict it to varying degrees, depending mainly on the age of the foetus. In southern and Midwestern states, where pro-life, anti-abortion voices have been stronger, access to legal abortion clinics is very restricted. In Indiana, where Patel wanted to terminate her pregnancy, there are only 12 official abortion providers in just four cities.

While Patel had the legal right to seek an abortion, activists are upset over the application of the foetal homicide law in her case. The foeticide law, currently enacted in 38 American states, officially recognises an unborn child as potential victim of homicide and is meant to crack down on both illegal abortions as well as external acts of violence that endanger the lives of pregnant women and, by extension, the foetus.

Instead, the law is being increasingly used to target pregnant women themselves, in cases where they have miscarriages, still births, or even opt for abortion.

In 2011, Indiana had slapped a foeticide charge on an Asian-American woman of Chinese origin who attempted suicide during pregnancy after she found out about her husband’s infidelity. While Shuai survived, her foetus could not be saved. Shuai had to spend a year in jail on murder charges before she was released on a plea deal – she agreed to plead guilty of criminal misdemeanour and her sentence was cut short.

Such misuse of foeticide laws tends to harm women more than protect them, say activists.

Further, say activists, it is just not a co incidence that both these women are of Asian origin. Because of constant hammering of China as a country that has ‘compulsory family planning and wants its citizens to restrict to single child families’ and India as a nation ‘that has these horrific abortions of female foetus’ public perception regarding Asian people is prejudiced.

If a woman has had or claims has had a ‘miscarriage’ it is easier to assume that it was deliberate; even if there is no proof for it as in the case of Purvi.

“It’s never a good idea to induce an abortion on your own, but should pregnant women be penalised when their pregnancies go awry and they need medical attention, whether or not they self-induced an abortion, attempted suicide or used drugs that caused a miscarriage?” said a reproductive rights writer Lauren Barbato in a news feature.

Outrage against this decision is mounting in the US and also Europe and a tweet campaign is being carried out in her support.