On Monday afternoon, an Indiana appeals court was packed with women. Some were reporters; others were reproductive rights activists and local Indiana women concerned for one of their own.
But they were all there for a single reason: to witness the appeal hearing for Purvi Patel.
— Indy Feminists (@IndyFeminists) May 23, 2016
Patel, 35, was the first American woman convicted of “feticide” after having a medically induced miscarriage when she was sentenced in 2015. An Indiana resident living with her religious Indian immigrant parents, Patel panicked when she became pregnant. She later miscarried (whether or not she took abortifacient pills ordered online has been debated, as doctors found no trace of the drug in her system), left the fetus in the dumpster, and went to the hospital seeking treatment for severe bleeding.
Patel’s own doctor called the police on her when she described what happened, and soon Patel faced charges both of feticide and of felony neglect of a child. While confusing, Patel was essentially being charged both with killing a fetus and with abandoning a live baby; her doctor called the police on his patient because he didn’t believe her when she said the fetus was stillborn. Later, it came to light that Dr. Kelly McGuire was a member of an anti-abortion group whose website states that “abortion of human life at any time from fertilization onward constitutes the willful destruction of an innocent human being.”
Patel was convicted of both charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison as a result of her miscarriage. Ironically, abortion is legal in Indiana as well as the rest of the United States. Many reproductive rights advocates have suggested that Patel’s conviction sets a precedent for conservatives—like GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump—who want to see women punished for abortion.
And Patel is hardly alone. In June 2015, Kenlissia Jones was arrested in Georgia for inducing an abortion with pills she bought online. Jones, who was five months pregnant, was charged with murder after a hospital social worker reported her to authorities. Also in Indiana, Bei Bei Shuai was charged with murder and attempted feticide in 2013 after she ate rat poison in a suicide attempt.
On Monday, Patel’s conviction was appealed by her legal team, who argued that a pregnant woman can’t be convicted of terminating a pregnancy while abortion is legal. According to an MSNBC report from inside the courtroom, Patel’s attorneys also challenged the contradictory charges (killing a fetus, abandoning a live baby) and stated that Patel never knew how far along she was in her pregnancy.
According to court records, Patel thought she was 10, maybe 12 weeks pregnant. The fetus she miscarried was 25 weeks old. According to a legal precedent set by Roe v. Wade, a fetus is viable (meaning it can sometimes live outside the womb) at 28 weeks.
Other reports from inside the court were posted on Twitter, as activists quoted lawyers and judges in an effort to gain visibility for the appeal.
"Shouldn't we have a law that people should call 911" if there is a 1% chance of survival? #purvipatel
— Birth of a Lawyer (@BirthofaLawyer) May 23, 2016
Judge Crone asks how feticide, with vague language, does not apply to legal abortion or complicate any/all pregnancy outcomes. #PurviPatel
— 🦪 (@elleiswrite) May 23, 2016
As the one-hour appeal hearing neared its end, WFYI radio reporter Amy Gastelum quoted the chief judge as saying, “You’ve given us a lot to think about. Thank you.”
The outcome of Patel’s case could have sweeping impacts on the way U.S. law treats pregnant women who miscarry or who induce abortion on their own with legal drugs like Mifepristone (also known as RU486 or the “abortion pill”). On Twitter, Chicago feminist group FURIE—which held a sidewalk vigil before attending the court hearing—noted that a decision from the court was expected in anywhere from three to six months.
Meanwhile, Patel will remain in prison.