This Woman's Conviction for Killing a Fetus Reveals a Major Problem With Women's Rights


On Monday an Indiana court sentenced Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old who says she suffered a miscarriage in 2013, to 20 years in prison, making her the first woman in America to be convicted of feticide.

Patel went to the hospital in July 2013 for excessive vaginal bleeding and initially denied the pregnancy. However, when doctors found an umbilical cord, she later admitted to having had a miscarriage. Coming from a conservative Hindu family, she'd panicked over the extramarital pregnancy and attempted to conceal it by placing the stillborn in a bag and throwing it in a dumpster.

The case has been criticized by legal experts for insubstantial evidence — while Patel was accused of taking labor-inducing drugs, for example, the toxicology report said otherwise — and questioning Patel without her attorney when she was first admitted to the hospital. 

At the heart of the prosecutor's case was the use of a 17th century method known as the "lung float test," an outdated test that measures the buoyancy of a fetus' lungs to determine whether it drew breath. 

Part of the widespread criticism over the trial also has to do with her charges. Slate wrote, "The two charges against Patel — feticide and felony child neglect — appeared to contradict each another [sic]: If Patel killed the fetus with pills while it was still in the womb, that would suggest there was nothing she could do to save it once it was born."

Using laws to protect women against women. In theory, feticide laws were introduced to protect pregnant women, increasing the penalty for those who harm or kill women carrying a child by essentially including two lives in the charges.

As Al-Jazeera noted, however, "Activists say the case highlights the way that prosecutors across the U.S. are increasingly using laws designed to protect expecting mothers to criminalize women for terminating a pregnancy or allegedly harming an unborn child."

Speaking about the ruling, Sara Ainsworth, Director of Legal Advocacy at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told Mic, "The conviction and sentencing are deplorable. ... Abortion is legal in the U.S. but the law is used against her in a very similar way to countries like El Salvador." 

Ainsworth also expressed concern that this " a very disturbing indication of what we can expect for women. Feticide laws are originally intended to be used against third parties and instead are increasingly being used against pregnant women."

Reproductive rights activist Lynn Paltrow criticized the charges brought against Patel too, noting that the decision contradicts claims from the anti-choice movement that "they only want to see 'abortionists,' not the people who get abortions, punished. For years, pretty much every major anti-abortion organization has wrapped their efforts up in the friendly rhetoric of 'protecting women,'" writes Feministing.

The bigger problem: Conservative states are continually finding ways to circumvent women's reproductive rights. Though women should theoretically be protected by the laws, they are actually being persecuted by them. This case is a perfect demonstration of that phenomenon and a scary example of what can happen when women don't feel protected and secure in their own rights.

As the Nation notes, "We've reached a point where desperate women who end their pregnancies before viability are going to prison."

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

To add to that, the ambiguity over the law also makes pregnant women even more vulnerable. "Under fetal homicide laws, an unborn baby is a protected person," World magazine argues. "Under Roe v. Wade, an unborn baby (at least during the first trimester) is an unprotected, non-viable, biological organism."

The only other woman to be charged with feticide in the U.S. is Chinese immigrant Bei Bei Shuai, who inadvertently terminated her pregnancy during an attempted suicide. If Shuai and Patel's stories are any indication, the use of feticide laws to curtail reproductive rights could end up targeting vulnerable immigrant populations, especially given cultural stigmas surrounding abortion and reproductive health.

In pushing back against such attempts to limit women's rights, we must also be cognizant of how and why these laws end up targeting the subpopulations that society should be trying to protect. And we would be wise to factor that in while championing women's rights across the country.