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An Important Precedent Set in the Case of Purvi Patel

Last month, a state appeals court overturned Indiana woman Purvi Patel’s feticide conviction, finding that the “Indiana legislature did not intend for the feticide statute to apply to illegal abortions or to be used to prosecute women for their own abortions.”

The 3-0 ruling is a bittersweet victory. In a major win, the decision provides a legal precedent against the use of feticide laws to punish women who have abortions, women who are suspected of having abortions, and women who miscarry. Advocates note that these laws are often used to target vulnerable women, and in the case of Indiana, only two women have ever been charged with feticide: Patel and Bei Bei Shuai, both Asian-American women. Lakshmi Sridaran, director of national policy and advocacy at South Asian Americans Leading Together, told NBC news, “We hope the strong precedent set in Patel’s appeal will protect women of color in states like Indiana and others where laws that should protect them often end up criminalizing them instead.”

Thirty-eight states have feticide laws, and 23 of them apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy. Turning these laws against pregnant people who self-induce abortion, especially given the onslaught of state-level abortion restrictions since 2010, can lead to negative public health consequences and further marginalize vulnerable populations who have difficulty accessing reproductive healthcare.

The establishment of a precedent is therefore undeniably good news for reproductive rights advocates. Yet, it wasn’t enough to get Purvi Patel out of jail.

Even though the appeals court vacated the feticide charge against Patel, it upheld her conviction for neglect of a dependent, a charge that seemingly contradicted the feticide charge. The court, however, downgraded the charge from a Class A felony to a Class D felony, meaning that Patel, who is currently still in prison, will ultimately serve less time. Patel was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Under Indiana rules, either Patel or Indiana could challenge the appeals court decision in the Indiana Supreme Court. The deadline for whether to continue the case will pass at the end of this month. Neither party has indicated whether it will appeal last month’s ruling.

In July 2013, Patel sought help at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Mishawaka, Indiana, for heavy vaginal bleeding. At first, Patel did not tell medical staff that she had been pregnant, but she later informed doctors that she had had a miscarriage at home. There is no dispute that Patel ordered drugs online to induce an abortion, but it was disputed whether Patel actually delivered a live baby. Also disputed was whether Patel knew the gestational age of the fetus. Evidence at trial showed that Patel believed she was only around 12 weeks pregnant. Abortion is legal in Indiana until 20 weeks. Patel was convicted in 2015 of both feticide and neglect of a dependent; the Indiana Court of Appeals heard her case in May 2016.

Sources:

NBC News 8/2/16; Office of the Indiana Attorney General 7/22/16; Feminist Newswire 5/25/16; MSNBC 5/23/16; Guttmacher Institute, September 2015; National Conference of State Legislatures, March 2015

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