It hasn’t been a great week for Indiana. The state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act effectively gives a green light to anti-LGBTQ* discrimination and has been inspiring outrage for days, resulting in an endless parade of think pieces, sound bites and backlash. At the same time, another controversy has been building in the embattled state: Last Monday, Indiana resident Purvi Patel was convicted of feticide for what she argues was a miscarriage. The state claims that Patel deliberately terminated her own pregnancy, making her the first person in U.S. history to be sentenced to jail for feticide on these grounds. While her conviction was based on dubious and hotly contested medical evidence, Patel has nonetheless been sentenced to 20 years in prison. Even though this case is the first of its kind, it sets an extremely dangerous precedent with far-reaching implications for the future of reproductive justice in the United States.
As of now, we don’t know for sure whether or not Patel deliberately terminated her own pregnancy. What we do know is that this case began when she arrived at an emergency room bleeding heavily and seeking medical assistance. She told the doctors that she had miscarried and, in a moment of panic and confusion, put the fetus in a dumpster. This emergency hospital visit kicked off a full-scale investigation into the specific circumstances of Patel’s miscarriage. Ultimately, Patel was charged with both feticide and child neglect. As some contend, these are two crimes that by definition could not have been committed simultaneously; no one knows whether a live birth occurred, but in this case Patel will be punished according to laws pertaining to both sets of circumstances.
If it strikes you as absurd that a woman can go to the ER for emergency treatment and end up being convicted both of inducing an illegal abortion and of killing a live infant, you’re absolutely correct. The state’s handling of this situation makes little sense, but the unfortunate reality is that this decision will inevitably be used as legal precedent in the future, and is allowing the judicial system to play politics.
This precedent gives the state frightening new opportunities to prosecute Indiana residents for failing to carry their pregnancies to term. Such precedent may also discourage people from seeking necessary medical care in the future for fear that any problems with their pregnancies, whether due to injury, drug abuse or any other reason, will be cause enough to commence a full criminal investigation.
Patel’s case, along with the disturbing nationwide trend of state-based attacks on access to safe and legal abortions, illustrates that the fight for reproductive justice in the United States is far from over. Instead of protecting the bodily autonomy of our citizens, we criminalize their reproductive choices.