By Leslie Gordon
Berkeley Law’s Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice (CRRJ) recently filed an amicus brief to urge the Indiana Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction of Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indian-American woman serving 20 years for fetal homicide. Patel is the first woman imprisoned on that charge for allegedly ending her own pregnancy, a conviction with far-reaching consequences that could result in feticide laws increasingly used to limit abortion rights, according to reproductive justice advocates. Thirty-eight states have fetal homicide laws.
“Patel represents what we believe to be a growing population where home abortion is the only available or accessible form of abortion,” said Jill Adams, executive director of the CRRJ, a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to issues of reproduction.
“An onslaught of state-level legislation has resulted in clinic closures, and there are additional financial and practical obstacles to certain populations receiving abortions outside the home,” Adams said. “The pregnant woman may live in an isolated rural area; self-directed abortion may be in line with cultural preferences; or immigrants may be unaware of the legality of abortion much less the nuances of it. So self-induction may be the only accessible or acceptable option. If you cut off the only method available, it has the same effect as an outright prohibition.”
The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum asked the center to write the brief on behalf of 30 reproductive justice organizations. “We knew the CRRJ would give voice to reproductive justice priorities, values, and concerns,” said Shivana Jorawar, the organization’s reproductive justice program director. For the CRRJ, assisting in Patel’s case is part of the center’s broader effort to “plot the legal landscape of abortion self-induction and to support people who end their pregnancies without medical supervision,” Adams added.
Bad public policy
Criminalizing abortion outside of medical facilities is bad public policy, according to CRRJ Supervising Attorney Melissa Mikesell, who helped work on the brief. Allowing prosecutors to link self-induced abortions with feticide will have “cascading repercussions” for all pregnant people, particularly those from marginalized communities. “Because of the cutting-edge legal issues raised by this case, it was important for us to be involved.”
Specifically, reproductive justice advocates argue that feticide laws, which were intended to protect pregnant victims of domestic violence and other crimes, are now being improperly used to criminalize women themselves. For individuals who cannot afford, access, or navigate clinic-based care, self-induction may be the only abortion method available.
Using feticide laws to target pregnant people amounts to “reproductive oppression,” the advocates argue, which disproportionately affects low-income and minority women. Immigrants, in particular, may lack the resources to use quality health services. The two women who’ve been prosecuted under Indiana’s feticide law are Asian, though Asians comprise only 2 percent of the state’s population, according to a recent op-ed about Patel’s case in The Washington Post.
The center’s amicus brief argues that abortion self-induction with medication is safe and effective, so the court shouldn’t make it a crime for a pregnant woman to end her own pregnancy that way. Also, because many conditions may push a pregnant person away from clinical abortion care, criminalizing self-induction has the same effect as prohibiting abortion outright when it’s the only available or acceptable method.
As a result, these advocates argue, the Patel case is part of broader attack on women’s health. If Patel’s conviction stands, more pregnant women will be forced to carry pregnancies to term, thereby driving families further into poverty, another consequence that will especially impact immigrants, low-income individuals and people of color. Using feticide laws in this way will also prompt unwanted scrutiny of all pregnant people, including those suffering from unintended pregnancy loss.
On November 17, Adams and the CRRJ will be part of a national webinar discussing the implications of Patel’s case on reproductive justice and public health. For more information, click here.
The state of Indiana is expected to respond to the appeal in early December.