August 11, 2016

Progress for Purvi Patel, but Targeting of Women of Color Continues


Nimra Chowdry, Stephanie Zhou

by Nimra Chowdhry, Reproductive Justice Fellow, and Stephanie Zhou, Communications and Development Associate at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum

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. 

Since Patel’s conviction, the state of Indiana has twice debated and passed a certain type of ban on abortion care for Indiana women based on stereotypes about AAPI women. House Enrolled Act (HEA) 1337, which is currently being challenged by Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, includes an anti-Asian sex-selective abortion ban based on the offensive and false stereotype that AAPIs do not value the lives of their girl children. Under the guise of promoting gender equality, so called “sex-selective abortion bans” question all women’s motivations for seeking an abortion on the backs of AAPI women.  

All of this coincides with a national anti-Asian bill similarly targeting AAPI women based on the notion that our reproductive choices should be prejudicially scrutinized based on stereotypes about sex-ratio imbalances favoring sons in Asian countries, even though no such imbalance exists among AAPIs. Just this April in Congress, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution debated H.R. 4924, a xenophobic bill banning abortions performed due to the race or sex of a fetus.  

It is well known that women of color are scrutinized far more for their motivations for seeking abortions. The unfortunate truth is that what happened to Patel could have happened to any AAPI woman. Rather than dedicating our scarce resources to the policing of women’s pregnancies, lawmakers should expand access to quality, affordable and culturally competent healthcare. Policymakers need to promote linguistic and cultural competence in health and human services, promote the hiring of community leaders in the healthcare system to better facilitate communication between the healthcare system and the AAPI community, increase public and private funding for data collection and research on the reproductive and sexual health experiences of AAPI women and girls and disaggregate data collection by ethnicity and immigration/refugee status and use this information to more effectively address the needs and concerns of AAPI women. These are only a handful of suggestions for how we can support the health and rights of women in our community. We need policies that empower women of color — not restrict our access to healthcare or ban it altogether.