By Sushmita Sihwag:
Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indian American, has become the first woman in the U.S. to be convicted on charges of foeticide and neglect of a dependent. Patel, who comes from a conservative Hindu family, confessed in an interview to a detective that she did not want her parents to find out about the pregnancy which was the result of an affair with a co-worker.
How It Happened?
In July 2013, Patel went to St. Joseph Regional Medical Centre’s emergency room seeking help as she was bleeding profusely and had a protruding umbilical cord. Sensing something was wrong, the doctors called the police as they are obligated to do so according to state norms, and that’s when she confessed that she had had a miscarriage and abandoned her stillborn foetus in a dumpster.
The Faulty Trial And Judgment
The police interrogated Patel and went through the text messages on her phone which suggested that she had been taking illegal abortion pills. This became the basis of the prosecution’s argument that she had tried to terminate her pregnancy and accused her of feticide, even though the toxicology report found no trace of such drugs in her system.
The second charge that the prosecutors pursued was that of neglect of a dependent, as they believed that she had delivered a live baby. Joseph Prahlow, the pathologist for the prosecution, testified that the child was born alive as it passed the “lung float test,” a test from the 17th century which states that if the baby’s lungs float in water, it was born alive. However, the test’s accuracy has been contested and it is not a scientifically valid method to be used in dealing with a doubtful case as this one.
The prosecutors also alleged that she was around 25 weeks pregnant at the time she gave birth and the baby could have easily survived. However, Shaku Teas, the defence’s pathologist, testified that the baby was at 23-24 weeks gestation and didn’t have developed lungs, and therefore, wasn’t viable.
Patel said that she had panicked when she saw the fetus in the pool of blood during the miscarriage and didn’t know what to do. “I assumed because the baby was dead there was nothing to do. I’ve never been in this situation. I’ve never been pregnant before,” reported South Bend Tribune, quoting her from a police interview.
On 30th March 2015, Patel was sentenced to 30 years in jail for neglect, with the final 10 suspended and six concurrent years for the feticide charge. The judgment came after a jury found her guilty in February on both the accounts made by the prosecutors. The logical fallacy in the judgment, argue activists, is that the state cannot charge her with both killing her unborn fetus and abandoning a live one simultaneously.
St. Joseph Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Hurley said, “The crux of this case lies in the choices you made after you delivered that baby and you realized the outcome was different than you hoped it would be or expected it would be.”
A Setback For Progressive Women’s Rights
The sentencing in Miss. Patel’s case comes as a huge setback for women’s rights, especially in a country which is one of the most progressive nations in the world. The message it sends out to the more conservative ones is that women are nothing but child-bearing machines and have no right to make decisions concerning their own bodies.
“Indiana should not join these countries where young pregnant girls are committing suicide at alarming rates; pregnant women are avoiding medical care for fear that any problem in pregnancy will be reported to law enforcement; and mothers are not only going to jail for having abortions, but also for suffering miscarriages and stillbirths,” said Sara Ainsworth, director of legal advocacy at National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPM).
The judgment will definitely discourage pregnant women who suffer from miscarriages or wish to terminate their pregnancies from seeking medical help. The law, which was intended to protect pregnant women and their unborn foetuses from a third party hurting them, has been in turn used to convict a woman herself allegedly trying to terminate her pregnancy.
The Culture Factor
The main reason for Patel’s desperation to get rid of her pregnancy did not find much coverage in the American media. She mentioned that her parents were conservative and did not want them finding out about it, as sex outside of marriage is still considered a taboo in the Indian culture. Had it not been the case, she wouldn’t have acted so stealthily and called 911 after the unexpected delivery, rather than taking matters into her own hands.
With a growing number of awareness campaigns demanding women’s rights for making their own life choices, it is time that we openly discussed issues concerning their reproductive and mental health. Many Indians are still hesitant in discussing these matters with their parents. What is needed to overcome the “generation gap” and conflicting views regarding sexual choices is increased communication between both sides.
It is extremely tragic that Patel had to face such harsh consequences for her ill-thought choices of dealing with the situation. But on the bright side, this shall serve as a wakeup call to thousands of young people and their parents around the globe in dealing more cautiously and sensibly with a situation like that of Patel’s.