Reproductive Crimes

08.27.14 9:45 AM ET

Indiana 'Feticide' Charge Is the Latest Fallout From States' Strict Anti-Abortion Laws

An Indiana woman has been charged with feticide—and faces decades in jail—for aborting an unwanted fetus, the latest in a string of cases that come close to criminalizing pregnancy itself.

Anyone who doubts that laws restricting abortion rights actually restrict the freedom of women to fundamentally control their bodies and health should look at Indiana. In that state, a 33-year-old woman has been charged with “feticide” after suffering premature delivery and seeking hospital treatment. She becomes the second woman to recently be charged with “feticide” in Indiana. Nationwide, at least 37 other states have similar laws that have restricted the rights of pregnant women under the guise of supposedly protecting fetuses. 

This past July, Purvi Patel went to an emergency room in St. Joseph County, Indiana, bleeding vaginally. According to the prosecution’s allegations, Patel initially denied that she had given birth but eventually told staff at the hospital that she had delivered a fetus at home and believed it was dead. Patel said when she saw the fetus wasn’t breathing or moving, she placed it in a bag and put the bag in a dumpster.

Upon examination of the fetus by police and medical staff, prosecutors initially charged Patel with felony neglect, a class A felony in Indiana that carries a 20- to 50-year prison sentence.  And yet under Indiana law, Patel could only be convicted of neglecting her dependent child if prosecutors could prove she gave birth to a live baby. 

So, to cover their bases, prosecutors also charged Patel with feticide, a class B felony. According to court records, Patel said in text messages found on her phone that she had taken drugs to try to terminate her pregnancy—although according to the ER doctor’s affidavit, one of the two drugs Patel took would not have had any effect.  Nonetheless, Patel can be found guilty of feticide if she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” Feticide carries an 8- to 20-year prison sentence under Indiana law. 

The legal knot here is dumbfounding. The State of Indiana intends to convict and incarcerate Purvi Patel one way or another, whether the fetus she delivered was alive or not—never mind the fact that the facts necessary for filing the one charge (that the fetus have been alive) entirely contradict the facts necessary for filing the other (that the fetus have been dead) and vice versa.  But the utter illogic of the legal prosecution simply echoes the illogic of Indiana’s law and others like them—which not only unconscionably (and arguably unconstitutionally) restrict a woman’s right to abortion but tread dangerously close to criminalizing pregnancy as a whole. 

If you do your job as a woman and give perfect birth to a perfect baby, you’re safe. But God forbid anything go wrong, that you have any complications either due to your own actions or actions that could be attributed to you, that you as a woman fail in your duty as a vessel for the fetus—the rights of which the State of Indiana is clearly more invested in than your own. What then? 

Consider Bei Bei Shuai, the first woman charged under Indiana’s feticide law. Shuai had become so depressed during her pregnancy that she attempted suicide. Did the State of Indiana try to help Bei Bei Shuai, to use state funds to provide mental health services or other support?  No, Indiana used taxpayer dollars to charge and incarcerate Shuai on the grounds of feticide because the suicide resulted in the termination of her pregnancy. Because Shuai was charged with murder, she was denied bail. Shuai was locked up in jail, pending trial, for over a year until she was released in a plea deal. State funds that could have been used not only to help Shaui but other pregnant women facing depression were instead spent to prosecute and incarcerate Shuai—as though, incidentally, her persecution would somehow send a message to other suicidal pregnant women. To put it bluntly, threat of incarceration isn’t much of a deterrent to women whose goal is to kill themselves. 

What these laws do deter is pregnant women seeking the health care they need or help from police or other authorities. In Iowa, a pregnant mother of two fell down a flight of stairs in her home and went to the emergency room. During her time in the hospital, Christine Taylor confided in a nurse that initially she hadn’t wanted another baby and had considered abortion or adoption but had decided she would carry the pregnancy to term and raise the baby. Still, the nurse reported the conversation to law enforcement, who charged Taylor with intentionally trying to end her pregnancy. Taylor, a single mother and still pregnant, was locked up in jail for two days until charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Again, what, these laws are supposed to deter pregnant women from accidentally falling down the stairs? Or seeking health care?

Of course, the reality is that feticide laws aren’t even a deterrent to women who are desperate and determined to terminate their pregnancies.  It’s hard to forget that when abortions in America were illegal and dangerous and deadly, women were still having them. Prior to Roe v. Wade, nearly one-fifth of maternal deaths in America were due to illegal abortions. The statistics were even more dire when broken out by race. In New York City in the early 1960s, among white women, one out of four childbirth-related deaths was due to abortion. Among women of color, abortion caused one in two such deaths. Even today, it’s no accident that the two women charged with feticide so far under Indiana’s law have both been women of color. While access to contraception and comprehensive reproductive health care is under jeopardy for women all across America, access for women of color is even more acutely threatened. And when women of color make choices about their own bodies, those choices—and their lives in general—are more likely to be scrutinized and cracked down on by authorities. The result is that sexist infanticide laws are exacerbated by economic inequality and racial bias such that women of color are disproportionately penalized.

Every time a woman is prosecuted under these extremist anti-abortion laws, or every time another such law is passed, it becomes increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention that the supposed quest to protect fetuses is quite plainly and simply a war on the women who carry them.