Originally published in The American Prospect on July 25, 2016.
The Indiana Court of Appeals last week overturned the 20-year prison sentence for Purvi Patel, the first woman in the United States to be convicted under a feticide law for having an abortion. The 3-0 decision marks a victory for reproductive rights advocates, who argued that using feticide laws to convict women who end their pregnancies sets a dangerous precedent for abortion rights and criminalizing the procedure.
Legal experts warned that if the conviction were upheld pregnant women would be prosecuted for all sorts of things—from self-inducing an abortion to smoking cigarettes, or even slipping down the stairs. Feticide laws are on the books in 38 states, and were originally passed to protect pregnant women who were victims of domestic violence.
Indiana strengthened its feticide law in 2009, after a pregnant Indianapolis bank teller was shot during a bank robbery, and lost the twin girls she was carrying. In the appeals decision, the judges wrote, “We hold that the legislature did not intend for the feticide statute to apply to illegal abortions or to be used to prosecute women for their own abortions.” They called Patel’s conviction under a feticide statute “an abrupt departure” from earlier cases.
However, while Patel’s Class A felony charge was vacated, the judges did not drop the second charge in the case. She is still left with a neglect conviction—a felony offense—though the court said it should be reduced from a Class A neglect charge to a Class D one. The minimum sentence for a Class D neglect felony is six months, and the maximum is three years. Patel has already been sitting in jail for more than a year.
Attorneys for both sides continue to review the decision; neither has indicated whether they planned to appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.
Kate Jack, an Indiana-based attorney who has provided legal advice to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told The Indianapolis Star that while the issue is not entirely closed, she does think the decision “will really give pause” to anyone considering bringing future feticide charges against pregnant women.
The decision comes on the heels of the Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump picked Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. Reproductive rights groups have already been organizing against Trump’s incendiary rhetoric around women and abortion rights, and the selection of Pence as his vice president has only angered advocates further.
Aside from being the chief executive of the only state to convict a woman who ended a pregnancy under a feticide statute, Pence has also achieved notoriety for supporting other reproductive health-care limitations. While serving in the U.S. House of Representatives he backed an unsuccessful 2011 federal effort to defund Planned Parenthood. When Pence became governor of Indiana in 2013, he continued to attack the organization. By 2014, state funding for Planned Parenthood had been reduced by nearly half of its 2005 funding levels: Nearly a decade of cuts forced the closure of five clinics.
In March, Pence went even further, signing an omnibus bill that included some of the strictest abortion measures in the country, including a ban on women who wish to end their pregnancy if their fetus has genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome. The law also called for prosecuting doctors who provided abortion services to women suspected of wanting to terminate a pregnancy based on genetic problems. A federal judge blocked this law from taking effect last month, saying it was likely unconstitutional.
While reproductive rights groups say they are heartened that the court reversed Patel’s feticide conviction, they disagree with the judges’ decision not to drop the neglect conviction. Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, issued a statement saying that the court’s new decision does not go far enough to restore full justice. By allowing the prosecutors’ argument that Patel could have prevented the death of her child to stand, Hernandez says, the judges have rejected “both medical science and compassion for a woman who needed medical care, not to be sent to prison.” She argued that ultimately people of color will “bear the brunt of unscientific laws and misplaced moral outrage.”
Patel remains in prison for now, and advocates are continuing to call for her release. Reproaction, a group focused on abortion access and reproductive justice, released a statement calling upon Mike Pence “to be pro-life for real and release her immediately.” They add that the state of Indiana “owes Purvi Patel a profound apology.”