Women, specifically women of color, in the United States are being criminalized for their abortions. Purvi Patel’s experience is representative. Patel, a South Asian American woman, was convicted in Indiana for the loss of her pregnancy outside of a medical setting after the State charged her in response to an alleged self-induced abortion. She now awaits certification of an appellate decision after the Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled in her favor. On Friday, July 22, the Court of Appeals released its opinion overturning Patel’s feticide conviction and downgrading her neglect of a dependent conviction from a class A felony to a class D felony. Patel has already served nearly a year and a half in the Indiana Women's Prison. The Appellate Court’s decision is in accord with widely held public opinion that women who terminate or attempt to terminate their pregnancies should not be put behind bars.
Patel is the first woman in the United States to be sent to prison for terminating her own pregnancy under a state’s feticide law. She was charged and convicted after she sought medical attention from an emergency room due to heavy bleeding and pain following the loss of her pregnancy. Yet, once her healthcare providers became aware of her pregnancy, they assisted local police in her arrest. Prosecutors centered their argument on whether Patel obtained and used abortifacient medication, and whether the fetus took a single breath. The State questioned Patel’s motives as an Indian woman and repeatedly asked her to disclose the ethnicity of the father of her pregnancy. Subsequently, Patel was convicted under conflicting charges of feticide and child neglect. The charges are inconsistent because the feticide charge is intended to prosecute someone who purposefully harms a fetus in utero, whereas neglect of a child or dependent laws are intended to punish those who neglect their affirmative duties as guardians by knowingly or intentionally causing harm to a living, breathing child. Feticide laws are meant to protect pregnant women against harm from third party actors who cause injury to their pregnancies, not punish pregnant women themselves. Yet Patel was punished for having, or attempting to have, an abortion under this law. Fortunately, the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with reproductive rights advocates and held that the State’s Feticide Statute was not meant to be a tool to criminalize women for their abortions.
Patel’s prosecution is not only a demonstration of anti-abortion animus leading to negative health outcomes for women across the country, but it is also an example of stereotyping of women of color, specifically the reproductive decision-making of Asian American women. In fact, neither the state of Indiana nor Congress has shown signs of progress against anti-immigrant stereotyping or anti-Asian rhetoric. Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are among the fastest growing racial group in the United States, yet make up only two percent of the total population in Indiana. At the same time, the only two women in Indiana who have been prosecuted for feticide have both been Asian American. The other woman, Bei Bei Shuai, is Chinese American.