photo by Johannes Jander via Flickr Creative Commons

photo by Johannes Jander via Flickr Creative Commons

On average, 15-20% of verified pregnancies (a woman who wasn't trying to get pregnant, missed a period, and took a positive pregnancy test) will end in a miscarriage. That means roughly one in six pregnant women will miscarry. That's a significant number, but it's still not something we talk about. And in a culture where most individuals are unlikely to get even the most basic form of sex education, it's certainly not something we educate women to deal with, or even necessarily expect as a possibility.

The lack of education surrounding miscarriage, however, isn't stopping the state of Indiana from severely punishing a woman for the way she managed an unexpected trauma. On Monday, Bustle reported that Purvi Patel was convicted of feticide and felony neglect of a dependent, sentencing her to 20 years in prison followed by five years of probation.

In July 2013, Patel claims to have suffered a miscarriage in her home. She deposited the stillborn fetus in a dumpster on her way to the hospital to receive treatment for heavy vaginal bleeding. Now, it's true that the dumpster mental image is not pleasant to entertain, and conservative politicians are milking that fact for all it's worth.

Think Progress reports that Patel told law enforcement officials, “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.”

Patel might not have acted how many people think she should have acted in this situation. But we have a cultural history of shaming and vilifying women for the choices they make – especially choices surrounding sex and reproduction – as if women are not autonomous individuals. Patel admits that she didn't know what to do, and actually didn't think there was anything to do. She had a new and traumatizing experience, and may have acted poorly as a result. To one extent or another, can't we all say the same?

For just a moment, put yourself in Patel's shoes. Imagine bleeding out all over your bathroom floor, and seeing a dead fetus mixed in with the blood. Would you know what to do? Would you think to take the fetus with you to the hospital while you are still bleeding heavily and worried for your own life? And what would you do with it, then? Set it in the passenger seat of the car? Even if you think Patel should have acted differently in that situation, I'm not coming up with a best-case scenario.

Now, Patel's situation is made a little more complicated by the fact that she is from an Indian immigrant family and was trying to keep her pregnancy a secret from her conservative Hindu parents. Perhaps, in a moment of panic and distress, she thought she could get treatment in the hospital without anyone discovering she had been pregnant.

Bustle notes that at the hospital, Patel was examined by Dr. Kelly McGuire, a documented member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It was McGuire who called the police and left the hospital to join them in finding the fetus once Patel admitted to placing it in a dumpster on her way to the hospital.

This NY Times article explores how murky the “facts” in Patel's court case appear to be. The defense pathologist said the fetus was 23-24 weeks and therefore not viable, confirming Patel's assertion this was a miscarriage/stillbirth. The prosecution pathologist, however, argued via dubious science that the fetus was closer to 30 weeks and born alive.

When interrogating Patel at the hospital without the presence of a lawyer, police also found text messages on Patel's phone indicating she at least talked with a friend about the possibility of purchasing abortion-inducing drugs. Though no proof of purchase and no trace of drugs in Patel's nor the fetus's system were ever found, the prosecution still tried to argue that Patel attempted to induce an abortion and then let a living baby die before discarding it in a dumpster.

As a woman of color who had an unwanted pregnancy due to an affair with a married man, Patel's circumstances gave the prosecution the opportunity to successfully implement a combination of circumstantial evidence, medieval science, and slut-shaming tactics to reinterpret Indiana's feticide laws to include women suspected of attempting illegal abortions.

RH Reality Check notes that there are only four cities in the state of Indiana which have abortion clinics, and women must book two appointments, observe an 18-hour waiting period, and receive counseling in order to receive abortion services.

Even if Patel was trying to end an unwanted pregnancy with illegal pills ordered off the Internet (a claim for which there is insubstantial proof and only circumstantial evidence), should a woman be sentenced to twenty years in prison for finding herself caught in the middle of a series of unfortunate circumstances? Patel was trying to keep her pregnancy a secret from her parents, indicating she did not think she could get familial support in the event she had the child. Presumably, her married lover would likewise not be of much assistance. This, combined with the reduction of legal abortion services in the state of Indiana could easily have created a perfect storm of desperation for Patel.

And what, in this case, is the lesser of two evils? Which would ruin Patel's life more? Having the child and being forced to raise it on her own with no support from family or loved ones, or spending twenty years in jail for allegedly attempting to end an unwanted pregnancy? Are we setting the cultural precedent that if a woman gets pregnant, she must lose twenty years of her life in the process no matter the actual outcome of the pregnancy?

In many ways, Patel's case serves to highlight the vulnerable populations being harmed by the conservative right and their attacks on abortion access and reproductive rights. Patel is the second Asian-American woman to be charged in Indiana for feticide, and the first-ever pregnant woman to be convicted of that crime in the US.

PRI notes that it's not just Indiana we need to be worried about: 38 states (including Texas) currently have feticide laws on the books. These laws were originally enacted to persecute illegal abortion providers and to protect pregnant women from domestic violence and other types of physical harm. Now, however, the law is being turned on pregnant women themselves.

Conservative politicians might try to argue that this new interpretation of the feticide law is a means of protecting innocent fetal life. In reality, it seems likely that poor women and women of color in conservative states will now be afraid to seek out medical care in the case they suffer abnormal bleeding, a miscarriage, or any of a number of pregnancy complications. The medical system should never be a source of fear or a tool of oppression.

Patel's case is the next in a frightening series of gains by conservative politicians, slowly stripping away the rights of women, racial minorities, and the poor. Being born with a uterus should not make an individual have to fear for their life.

This article was originally published by The Horn on 04/03/2015.

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