Experts Say Case of Purvi Patel Sets 'Cruel' Precedent for Reproductive Rights

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Experts Say Case of Purvi Patel Sets 'Cruel' Precedent for Reproductive Rights

Woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for losing fetus may have 'chilling effect' on reproductive health in many states

Purvi Patel became the first woman in U.S. history to be sentenced for feticide over what the state said was an attempt to end her own pregnancy. (Photo: Robert Franklin/AP)

Though she has steadfastly claimed the loss of her pregnancy was a miscarriage, the 20-year prison sentence given to Purvi Patel by an Indiana court this week for the crime of 'feticide' is being slammed by legal experts and reproductive rights advocates who say the ruling is not only misguided and "cruel" given the facts of the case, but sets an "alarming" precedent for the rights of women both in Indiana and around the country.

Patel on Monday became the first woman in U.S. history to be sentenced to prison for losing her own fetus. She was found guilty of one charge of feticide and one charge of neglect of a dependent, after prosecutors claimed she delivered her fetus alive, rather than stillborn, as Patel told doctors.

"While no woman should face criminal charges for having an abortion or experiencing a pregnancy loss, the cruel length of this sentence confirms that feticide and other measures promoted by anti-abortion organizations are intended to punish not protect women," said Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, in a statement on Monday.

Indiana passed its feticide law in 2009, a year after a pregnant woman lost her twin fetuses when she was shot in the stomach during a bank robbery. Supporters said the law would help prosecute in those cases where a third party harmed a pregnant woman's fetus, but opponents warned that it could be misused to criminalize abortions.

"The prosecution and verdict in this case demonstrate that, despite their claims to the contrary, the real result of the anti-abortion movement—if not the intended goal—is to punish women for terminating pregnancies," Paltrow wrote in an article for The Public Eye magazine. "Turning this law into one that can be used to punish a woman who herself has an abortion is an extraordinary expansion of the scope and intention of the state’s law."

Patel entered a hospital for blood loss in July 2013 and told doctors she had delivered a stillborn. But prosecutors accused her of taking drugs to induce an abortion based on a series of text messages on Patel's phone in which she discussed buying the drugs online, although no drugs were found in her system or the fetus's system. The state, having used a scientifically discredited "float test" to determine if there was air in the fetus's lungs, then argued that Patel abandoned the fetus in a trash bin after it was born alive.

Katherine Jack, an Indiana attorney who defended another woman charged with homicide for losing a pregnancy, told the Guardian on Wednesday, "If [Patel’s case is] appealed and upheld, [the conviction] basically sets a precedent that anything a pregnant woman does that could be interpreted as an attempt to terminate her pregnancy could result in criminal liability."

"This is quite traumatic and frightening," Paltrow told the New York Times on Wednesday. "Many people would love to see an end to abortion, but a majority of even those people don't want to see women locked up in prison."

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Paltrow noted there are 38 states with feticide laws on the books. "Indiana’s law is somewhat different from other states, but it is not really about the language of the statute, it’s about the commitment of the prosecutors and the state to use it as a mechanism for depriving pregnant women of their human rights," she said.

Kathleen Morrell, reproductive rights fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, told the Guardian, "One of the most concerning [effects] is the chilling effect on women then becoming reluctant to seek care when they need it. Anything that restricts their desire to go and see a doctor because they think something bad could happen to them is just going to be bad for public health in general."

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