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Indiana Sent a Woman Who Claims She Had a Miscarriage to Prison for 20 Years for Killing Her Fetus

Advocates say the case of Purvi Patel sets a dangerous precedent for American women who seek support and medical care for unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages.

by Liz Fields
Apr 1 2015, 8:30pm

Imagen vía el Departamento de Policía del Condado de St. Joseph

Purvi Patel was afraid of the lifeless fetus and the blood that gushed out of her and onto her bathroom floor one summer evening in July 2013, but she was even more afraid to tell her strict Hindu family she had fallen pregnant during an affair with a married co-worker. In a panic, she swathed the fetus in towels and a plastic bag and hid it in a dumpster near her family's restaurant in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Later that night, Patel arrived at the local hospital with a severed umbilical cord and placenta still stuffed in her womb. Prosecutors charged her with felony neglect and feticide — an act that causes the death of a fetus — and a jury convicted her in February. This week, nearly 20 months after the incident, the 33-year-old Patel was sentenced to 30 years prison with 10 suspended for what she still maintains was a miscarriage.

Patel is first woman in America to be charged, convicted, and sentenced for attempting to kill an unborn fetus. To this day, experts have not been able to determine how many weeks pregnant she was at the time of the incident. Some doctors have said the fetus was only 23 or 24 weeks old and incapable of breathing on its own.

For advocates of women's reproductive rights, her case underscores the ongoing criminalization of free choice, and sets a dangerous precedent for women who seek support and medical care for unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages.

"When these feticide laws were passed, their supporters tried to claim they would never be used against the women themselves, that they were there to protect them," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, legal counsel for reproductive rights at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told VICE News. "Patel's prosecution just exposes the lies, that any of these laws have anything to do with protecting women."

Related: Fake abortion clinics are spreading misinformation and deceiving American women

Kelly McGuire, the obstetrician who examined Patel at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center on the night of the incident, testified in the trial that he rushed to the dumpster where Patel admitted hiding the fetus, not even taking time to remove his hospital scrubs. He said it was bluish-grey and past the point of resuscitation.

The doctor later testified that, judging from the size of Patel's uterus and the length of the umbilical cord, the fetus had been gestating for approximately 30 weeks, meaning it would have been about 10 weeks premature.

"The baby was cold and lifeless but I thought it was an otherwise normal, healthy appearing baby," McGuire told jurors. "There were no other signs of trauma to the baby."

Another expert used a controversial "lung float test" — a technique developed in the 17th century that has been questioned by modern medical experts — to determine that the fetus had taken a breath and was therefore born alive.

At least 38 states with fetal homicide laws also have feticide laws on the books, but the charge is usually reserved for people who perform illegal abortions, abusive spouses, and others who inflict violence on pregnant women. Only a few states — including Indiana — have allowed pregnant women to be charged with feticide.

Kolbi-Molinas pointed out that, although Patel was the first pregnant woman to be convicted and sentenced for feticide, a similar high-profile case played out in Indiana's courts and the international media between 2011 and 2013.

Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant, was charged with feticide after she survived an attempted suicide with rat poison that killed her 33-week-old fetus. Shuai refused to plead guilty to feticide, which potentially carried a life sentence. She later pled guilty to criminal recklessness charges and was sentenced to time served for the 435 days she spent in jail before receiving bail.

A number of other states have also used fetal homicide laws against the women they were intended to protect. In Mississippi, a woman named Rennie Gibbs was charged with murder after she gave birth to a stillborn while addicted to cocaine.

The inconsistent application of the laws was highlighted recently after Colorado prosecutors decided not to file fetal homicide charges against a woman who used a Craigslist ad for baby clothes to lure an expectant mother to her home, only to cut out the 8-month-old unborn baby from her victim's womb.

Related: Locking up pregnant drug users has devastating consequences

Activists fear Indiana's hardline approach to both the Shuai and Patel cases could prompt women in the future to avoid seeking medical assistance for fear of being charged with homicide for having a miscarriage, or even for passing on HIV or other communicable diseases to their fetuses.

"Indiana's legislature and those in other states have been enacting restrictive abortion laws repeatedly," Kolbi-Molinas said. "It shows yet another example of disrespect for people's personal and private decisions and who they are. It's part of a pattern."

Prosecutors in Patel's case cited text messages between Patel and a friend in which she mentioned purchasing abortion pills from an online pharmacy as proof that she was guilty of feticide. No trace of the drugs were found in her system, and police never found evidence that proved she purchased the pills.

Patel's lawyers tried to argue that she could not be charged with both child neglect — which would require the baby to have been born alive — and aborting an unborn fetus. But members of the jury, including some who appeared to have tears in their eyes as they were shown photos of the fetus lying on a plastic bag, convicted her regardless. Her attorneys plan to appeal.

Kolbi-Molinas said that, while courts and juries must legally base their decision on the constitution and the law, emotionally fraught cases that involve abortion are often subject to political disposition, especially in conservative states. In Indiana, Republican Governor Mike Pence is currently facing a firestorm over his state's recently enacted "religious freedom law," which critics say enables discrimination against the LGBT community.

According to the ACLU attorney, women of color and individuals from low-income communities are "targeted more for these types of prosecutions than other women," potentially pushing them toward more extreme measures, including suicide.

"I think whether you're talking about feticide laws or abortion restriction law, they are almost targeted against most vulnerable and unempowered women," Kolbi-Molinas said. "What happens when you restrict abortion for women with less means to get the care and help they need."

Related: Texas lawmaker wants to appoint lawyers to fetuses whose mothers are brain-dead

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields