Far away from the throngs of anti-choice protesters descending on the nation’s capital for their Roe v. Wade anniversary counter-protest, attorneys in Indiana began the process of selecting jurors for the felony feticide trial of Purvi Patel.
Patel faces two different, and contradictory, charges after suffering a premature delivery and seeking medical care. The story of her prosecution, and the others lining up behind her, paint a bleak picture of life under the state’s ultra-conservative Republican reign and give a frightening look of what’s to come as increasingly draconian abortion restrictions force pregnant people to turn to other, sometimes illegal and often dangerous, means.
According to prosecutors, Patel went to an emergency room in St. Joseph, Indiana, last summer for vaginal bleeding. They claim Patel at first denied to hospital workers that she had recently given birth. Eventually, prosecutors allege, she told staff she believed she was roughly two months pregnant and miscarried the fetus at home.
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Prosecutors claim Patel told hospital staff that when she saw the fetus wasn’t breathing or moving, she put it in a plastic bag and placed the bag in a dumpster.
The doctors believed Patel had been much further along in her pregnancy than Patel had disclosed, claiming in one of the charging documents that she was closer to 28-to-30 weeks post-fertilization.
Police eventually located the fetus believed to be the one Patel had discarded, and based on an initial examination by police and medical personnel, concluded the fetus was roughly 30 weeks and theoretically capable of surviving outside the womb. The physician who conducted the autopsy on the fetus determined it was premature and approximately 28 weeks post-conception.
Prosecutors initially charged Patel with felony neglect of a dependent, a class A felony that carries with it a 50-year prison sentence.
But in order to convict Patel with felony neglect, prosecutors must be able to prove the fetus she delivered was born alive, something Patel’s attorney claims prosecutors can’t do. That’s why they have also charged Patel with feticide.
Indiana law defines feticide as “knowingly or intentionally” terminating a pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” In text messages Patel sent about a month before her miscarriage, Patel admits to being more than two months pregnant and to planning to terminate her pregnancy with medication she ordered online from Hong Kong, according to court documents.
However, according to court filings, only one of the two drugs Patel took would have induced labor, while the other drug only works if the pregnancy is fewer than nine weeks. That means there is an open question as to whether any medication Patel allegedly took had any effect at all.
Feticide carries an eight- to 20-year prison sentence.
The inspiration for Indiana’s feticide law came in 2009 after a bank teller who was pregnant with twins was shot during a bank robbery and lost the pregnancy. Until recently, prosecutors had refrained from using the state’s law against a pregnant person.
Then, in 2011, Indiana prosecutors charged Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant, with murder and attempted feticide after a failed suicide attempt ended her pregnancy. The state kept Shuai in jail for more than a year on those charges before eventually reaching a plea agreement with Shuai’s attorneys.
Shuai in 2013 pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal recklessness, and prosecutors dropped the feticide charges against her as they were readying them against Patel.
“Indiana’s atmosphere seems to be that once they find out a person is pregnant, then it is all about the fetus and nothing about the mother,” Rev. Marie Siroky, a UCC minister and Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice board member told Rewire in an interview. “These stories get framed in such a way that women are always the criminals and I do think it’s racial.”
“These are women of color, these are not white women, and I do think there’s this assumption that they’ve done something.”
The facts of the Patel case as laid out by prosecutors fits Siroky’s description of a “fetus first” mentality, in which the state presumes pregnant people are guilty until proven innocent. When Patel first arrived at the hospital and denied giving birth, staff called Dr. Kelly McGuire for a second opinion. After McGuire determined Patel had recently delivered and was likely further along in her pregnancy than she had told hospital staff, he became so concerned for the welfare of Patel’s fetus that he fled the hospital to go look for the fetus.
Once his client admitted to the miscarriage and the fetus was discovered, uniformed officers were stationed outside Patel’s hospital room, according to documents filed by Patel’s attorney. At one point, Patel underwent a surgical procedure only to have officers stationed bedside waiting to interrogate her.
Patel’s attorney argued those actions violated Patel’s constitutional rights and sought to exclude the statements Patel made while in the hospital. Patel’s attorney also tried to get the feticide charge dropped, arguing the statute was never intended to be turned against pregnant people.
Prosecutors scoffed at the argument, citing the Shuai prosecution for proof to the contrary. Attorneys from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women had sought permission from the court to submit an amicus brief, including leading expert medical, legal, and bioethics opinions on the ways in which prosecuting pregnant people undermines public health and violates numerous constitutional rights.
Judge Elizabeth C. Hurley, a University of Notre Dame law graduate and 2013 judicial appointee of abortion rights foe Gov. Mike Pence (R), denied all of those requests, which means the trial moves forward.
Attorneys and advocates monitoring both the Shuai and Patel cases note that at the same time Indiana conservatives prosecute women of color based on dubious investigations and scientific proof, the state has higher-than-average infant mortality rates and in 2013 lead the nation in sexual assaults against teenagers. In 2013, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller floated the idea of drug testing all pregnant women in the state.
“There’s a lot of blaming and shaming of women,” Carolyn Meagher, co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, said in an interview with Rewire. “Republican leadership in the state blames the high infant mortality rates on the behaviors of pregnant women, like smoking or narcotic use, but they will not take a look at social determinants of health like poverty and racism. We don’t even have preschool here yet.”
Rev. Marie Siroky of the reproductive justice coalition noted that the abortion politics surrounding the case are also inescapable. South Bend, where the prosecution is taking place, has a significant Right to Life presence, which Siroky sees as a component in the prosecution.
“We have some legislators in the state who cannot let this [abortion] go,” Siroky said. “Under the guise of being ‘pro-life’ and to make the conservatives happy, they are going to go after people like Patel.”
Siroky continued, “The prosecutors are sending the message that when a woman has a pregnancy that ends in anything other than an optimal pregnancy, they are going to go right away for feticide charges with the assumption that she did something.”
For their part, local anti-choice groups have remained largely silent on Patel’s prosecution except to note the existence of Indiana’s “safe haven” law that allows newborns to be surrendered without fear of prosecution.
“Have you considered the mother is a victim?” Siroky said.
Patel’s trial is scheduled to begin on January 26.