By Amla Pisharody
UPDATE: Less than two months after an Indiana court overturned the conviction of Purvi Patel for foeticide and neglect of a dependent, for which she was sentenced to a harsh 20 years in prison, a judge said she should be released immediately, after she was re-sentenced to 18 months in prison. Patel has been in prison for three years and was arrested in July 2013 after a miscarriage.
ORIGINAL: 25th July 2016
Two recent cases of women and abortions in the news have us cheered: one is that India’s Supreme Court gave a woman permission to have an abortion in the 24th week of her pregnancy, amidst debate on the time limit for abortions in India (the legal limit is currently 20 weeks, though efforts are on to extend this). The other is that the conviction of Purvi Patel, a US woman of Indian origin who in 2015 was sentenced in America to 20 years in prison for foeticide and neglect of a dependent after she tried to end her pregnancy, has been overturned by the Indiana Court of Appeals.
Patel is the first woman in America to have been sentenced under the foeticide law and to be charged and sentenced for ending her own pregnancy. Patel went to a hospital because of profuse bleeding after a miscarriage and was turned over to the police by her doctor, who identifies as pro-life. She has also been accused of buying drugs to induce abortion and the state claims the baby was alive at birth, even though Purvi has maintained that it was stillborn. There is an inherent contradiction in the charges that have been filed against her, as foeticide would mean that the foetus was killed; adding neglect of a dependent would mean that the foetus had to be alive.
Patel was hiding her pregnancy from her parents because she was afraid of the backlash of having sex before marriage and also aborting a child.
Patel’s lawyers argued that the foeticide law is supposed to target third parties who may cause harm to the child. The law was introduced after a pregnant woman was shot, and the twins she was carrying died because of this in 2009. Patel’s case shows new effort by the state to punish the women themselves. “If it’s appealed and upheld, [the conviction] basically sets a precedent that anything a pregnant woman does that could be interpreted as an attempt to terminate her pregnancy could result in criminal liability,” said Katherine Jack, a US attorney who defended another Indiana woman charged with homicide for losing a pregnancy. According to a Guttmacher Policy Review paper titled Prosecuting Women for Self-Inducing Abortion: Counterproductive and Lacking Compassion women will try to end pregnancies on their own if it is their only option, no matter the risks. And according to a report by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, 10,000 to 240,000 women attempted self-termination of pregnancy after Texas passed the HB2 abortion law in 2013, which was later overturned.
Patel’s case came up for appeal on 22nd July,when the court set aside the sentence of 20-year imprisonment. “Given that the legislature decriminalised abortion with respect to pregnant women only two years before it enacted the foeticide statute, we conclude that the legislature never intended the foeticide statute to apply to pregnant women,” the 42-page ruling read.
The verdict will reduce Patel’s sentence by a minimum of 10 years.