At some stage in 2013, Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman living in Indiana, discovered that she was pregnant. Not wanting to alert her religiously conservative family, she purchased the abortion-inducing drugs mifepristone and methotrexate online, as do women throughout the world when they want to end a pregnancy, but usually where abortion is illegal. On 13 July, the drugs caused an incomplete abortion, leading to heavy vaginal bleeding and a visit to the emergency room at St Joseph’s Regional Medical Center near South Bend, Indiana.
Given the circumstances, it was understandable that Patel did not immediately reveal to medical staff that she had been pregnant. One doctor, Kelly McGuire, who was on call that night and was listed as a member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, was suspicious and quizzed Patel. When she finally told him what had happened, he called the police. Rather than stay to help his patient, he joined the police search for the fetal remains. As Patel slowly recovered, she was subjected to an interrogation by the police.
In February 2015, in what may be the first case of its kind in the US, Patel was convicted of feticide and the neglect of a dependant and subsequently sentenced to 41 years in prison. On 22 July this year, she was cleared of some of the charges after an appeal, but will likely spend several more months in prison. Her imprisonment is the only crime to have taken place in this whole sorry tale.
The case is unique because of the feticide charge. Indiana’s feticide law, under which Patel was convicted, was originally passed in 1979 and made it a crime ‘knowingly or intentionally’ to end a pregnancy. The legislature extended its meaning after an armed bank robber shot a pregnant bank teller in 2008. The law exempts legal abortions, but not those done using pills purchased without a prescription.
Many were rightly perplexed by the fact that Patel was charged with two seemingly conflicting crimes: feticide and child neglect. If Patel was guilty of feticide then there was no child to neglect; if there was a child to neglect, then the feticide charge was spurious. Prosecutorial overreach being what it is, the state’s lawyers may have decided to throw the book at her in the hope that something would stick. It did, despite the seemingly insurmountable problems with the evidence presented.