Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of abortion.
Last Friday, the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed feticide charges against Purvi Patel, a woman accused of self-inducing an abortion. In 2013, Patel had ingested abortion pills to terminate her pregnancy and checked into a hospital due to an inordinate amount of bleeding. She told the staff that she had birthed a stillborn baby and had disposed of its body in a trashcan. The state of Indiana charged her with feticide and neglect of a dependent, and Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Yet the Indiana Court of Appeals declared that the feticide charges were unfounded, agreeing that “feticide” was not to be used against a pregnant woman who has an abortion. The court struck these charges down, but upheld the neglect charges against Patel. The elimination of the infanticide charges is a victory for women’s rights advocates, since the charge suggests that a woman can be held legally responsible for a miscarriage or for seeking an abortion. Yet several more complex issues are at play in this case.
First, Court documents stated that Patel did not want her family to know that she had become pregnant by a married man. When a woman is conditioned to believe that she cannot freely, safely, and discreetly seek an abortion, there is a problem. A woman should be able to seek an abortion without having to share those details with her family if she chooses not to do so—despite any personal or familial issues.
Second, there is no way that Patel should have disposed of the fetus herself, and she should have sought the appropriate medical care, whether the fetus “took at least one breath” as claimed by speculating doctors who testified, or was stillborn, as Patel believed. However, Indiana has very strict abortion laws, requiring women to endure a waiting period for a time sensitive procedure, and requiring abortions in the second trimester to be performed in a hospital or surgical center.
The legal limits around abortion in Indiana certainly contribute to an environment where a safe, legal abortion is not the easiest procedure to obtain for a woman in need.
Finally, the charges in this case demonstrate the state of Indiana’s willingness to criminalize a woman for having an abortion. Patel’s legal team argued that feticide and neglect of a dependent are contradictory charges, since a fetus is defined as un-viable outside of the womb, thus unable to simultaneously qualify as a dependent.
Although the courts withdrew the infanticide charges, since they determined that such charges were not intended to be levied against a woman who terminated her own pregnancy, they threw out Patel’s argument, claiming that the courts did not have to adhere to the definition of infanticide to levy the charges.
This case is a painful reminder that attacks on safe and legal abortion can criminalize women for choosing not to become mothers. Thankfully the feticide charges were overturned and Patel will likely be released soon, since her new sentence has reduced her prison time to three years.
Photo Credits: WFYI Indiana