WASHINGTON (TIP): A judge in America’s conservative heartland has sentenced an Indian-American woman to at least 20 years in prison on charges of feticide and child neglect in a case that goes to the heart of the US debate on abortion and women’s reproductive rights.
Purvi Patel (33), who comes from a family of Indian immigrants settled in South Bend, Indiana, came into the emergency room of a local medical center with heavy bleeding in July 2013. After doctors determined she had lost a pregnancy, she confessed she had delivered a stillborn baby and had abandoned it in a dumpster after hiding her situation from her strict orthodox parents. She said he had tried to revive the baby, which was born at an estimated 24 weeks, and she did not call 911 because she had panicked.
Following a surgery to remove her placenta, Patel became a criminal suspect in the eyes of a state that has become a byword for conservatism amid a raging ongoing controversy over the rights of women and minorities.
A recent state bill that its Republican Governor claims will advance and protect religious liberty but is seen by critics as a sly move against the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community has provoked outrage in the more liberal coastal states, with cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and San Diego imposing a ban on official travel to Indiana as a mark of protest. But Arkansas, another conservative state in the so-called Bible Belt, has announced it will adopt similar laws.
In the Patel case, the debate centered on the gestational age of the fetus and whether it could be considered fully formed baby. Her defense maintained that the fetus was between 22-24 weeks old and was stillborn after she had a miscarriage. State prosecutors alleged that the pregnancy was nearing 30 weeks and the baby had been born alive.
Patel was initially charged with “child neglect resulting in the death of a dependent.” Based on text messages found on her phone, she was also charged later with feticide by with taking abortion-inducing drugs bought online, although toxicology tests did not find any trace of the drugs in Patel or the fetus.
The apparent contradiction between the two charges – the first requires a child to be born and alive, and the second one implies it was not alive – did not seem to worry the state.
Besides, feticide, which is in the books in many states including Indiana, is typically used against illegal abortion providers or people who harm pregnant women. But Indiana, now in the throes of a conservative mood, decided to move against Patel.
According to women’s and reproductive rights advocates, the state disregarded the circumstances of Patel’s questioning by investigators – a 3am post-operation grilling that included emotionally intrusive questions about the father of the fetus, whether it was the result of a one-night stand etc – to prove its case. Patel’s lawyers later told the court she became pregnant by a married co-worker and didn’t want her parents to know; she also didn’t know exactly how long she’d been pregnant.
On Monday, following up on the jury’s verdict that held Patel guilty on both charges, a judge sentenced her to 30 years in prison – with ten suspended – on the felony neglect charge, and an additional six years for feticide which she will serve concurrently. Patel plans to appeal her conviction.