The Criminalization of Abortion

Reproductive rights advocates say the case of Purvi Patel, the first of its kind, may set a dangerous precedent. And you should be outraged!

The American Prospect reports last March, Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indiana woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for fetal homicide. Patel is the first woman in the country to be convicted under a feticide law for having an abortion. Reproductive rights advocates believe that her conviction signals a new trend of criminalizing the procedure.

The facts of the case are in dispute. Patel’s attorney challenged the sentence Monday at an Indiana Court of Appeals hearing, arguing that the allegations are all over the map. Patel has been charged with feticide—conduct before the delivery. She was also charged with neglect of a dependent child—conduct after the delivery.

Prosecutors say that Patel obtained pills from an overseas source to induce an abortion, but investigators found no drugs in her system. The two sides also disagree over how far along Patel was in her pregnancy and whether the baby was born alive or stillborn. She has languished in jail for the past year.

Feticide laws are on the books in 38 states, and were originally passed to protect pregnant women who were victims of domestic violence.

Patel’s case has sparked concern that self-inducing abortions can now be criminalized along with other behaviors, such as consuming alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or even accidents like falling down stairs. Of particular concern is that the majority of abortion-related arrests have targeted low-income women and women of color, say Jeanne Flavin, a Fordham University sociology professor and Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Paltrow and Flavin argue that there has been a notable uptick in arrests since 2005, which coincided with a dramatic spike in the number of states that passed laws impeding access to abortion.

Lawrence Marshall, Patel’s attorney, argued on Monday that the state of Indiana has failed to substantiate the allegations that led to his client’s conviction. “The evidence in this case was not there,” he said.

Prior to the hearing, health, bioethics, and legal experts submitted an amicus briefin support of Patel. They argued that these types of prosecutions exacerbate fear and stigma around unwanted pregnancies, deterring some women from seeking medical care, and others from speaking honestly with the doctors that they do see. Legal experts also argued that feticide prosecutions violate women’s constitutional rights to “procedural due process, procreative privacy, and equal protection.”

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