Where’s the outrage at Indiana’s prisons for pregnant women?


On February 4, an Indiana jury convicted Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old woman, of two charges, feticide and neglect of a dependent. The charges are contradictory as she is accused of killing a fetus and a baby at the same time. Here’s the story.

On July 2013, Purvi Patel went to the hospital for heavy vaginal bleeding. Her condition was linked to a miscarriage, which she reluctantly admitted. During the trial, her voice was heard through a videotaped interview with the detective at the time she was in the hospital. She freely explained that she realized that she was pregnant just recently. She said she thought she was only 2 months pregnant. She then said, “It all came out.” The baby was stillborn. She did not call 911 because she was in shock. Instead, she collected the body of the fetus/baby to put it in a plastic bag and then a dumpster. The media reports insisted on the sex of the fetus, on the fact that she put the bag with the little body in a dumpster.

The question should have been why was she so hesitant? Was it because her family is very conservative and had a strong hold on her sexual life, as the father testified that he taught her not to have sex before marriage? Was it that she was afraid of the State that vilifies any woman looking to terminate unwanted pregnancy and punishes women for losing their fetus?

The police searched her cell phone and found text messages to a friend referring to abortive drugs from Hong Kong. Whether she received these drugs and used them is not clear and not proven.

None of the charges were validly demonstrated; nevertheless she was still convicted of these absurd allegations. She did not testify at her own trial, but everybody else did, including her parents.

What mattered for the state of Indiana was to criminalize this voiceless woman. And it was not the first time. Bei Bei Shuai who had attempted suicide while pregnant and consequently lost her fetus, went through the same ordeal of feticide persecution.

The court was ready to make an example despite the fact that the circumstances of her miscarriage were not that unusual. The court gathered three times more people for jury selection than for a high-level felony case. The prosecutor let people declaring their pro-life stand be part of the jury declaring that the case was not about abortion.

But the case was about women’s rights to decide to reproduce or not, to control their own body and to be safely helped by the medical system. The case was about in having women’s rights protected by the state.

Indiana is one of 38 states that have passed feticide laws. Although these laws claimed to protect pregnant women against abusive partners and against illegal abortion providers, in reality they give the State the ability to deny women of their full humanity, which includes the capacity to decide one’s fate. These laws grant the fetus greater rights than the pregnant woman.

Purvi Patel now faces a possible 6 to 20 years in prison. Her conviction demonstrates that the State will go to great lengths to downgrade the personhood of a woman instead of providing the necessary support for reproductive rights and women’s health.

Lynn Paltrow one of the coauthors of an important study on incarceration of pregnant women, declared: “Once again prosecutors in Indiana are using this very sad situation to establish that intentional abortions as well as unintentional pregnancy losses should be punished as crimes. In the US, as a matter of constitutional law and human decency, no woman should be arrested for the outcome of her pregnancy.”

Meanwhile, in France, for the celebration of the 40 years anniversary of the Veil Law that legalized abortion, the State reaffirmed its responsibility in guaranteeing free accessible abortion in a timely manner as well as women’s reproductive rights and health. In the US, women are imprisoned because they have less being-in-the-world, than something called the protection of “potential life.”

It’s the state of Indiana that should be prosecuted for failing to protect the rights of its residents. Instead of using public money to provide healthy solutions to its residents, Indiana invests in prisons for pregnant women.

Where is the outrage?



(Photo Credit: Kostsov/Thinkstock) (Original drawing by Pierre Colin Thibert)

About Brigitte Marti

Brigitte Marti is an organizer researcher who has worked on reproductive rights and women's health initiatives in France and in the European Union and on women prisoners' issues in the United States. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.