Thirty three-year-old Purvi Patel, who claims she suffered a miscarriage, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of foeticide and neglecting a dependent. She is the first example of a pregnant woman whom a state has successfully charged, convicted, and sentenced for intentional miscarriage. Indiana prosecutors pursued a similar line in 2011 when they charged and imprisoned a Chinese woman, Bei-Bei Shuai, with attempting foeticide; unlike Patel, Shuai reached a plea deal. I will return to the implications of the Purvi Patel case for reproductive rights activism at the end of this article, but I first want to explore a less-examined question: what does it mean that the two foeticide cases that this state has pursued involve women of Indian and Chinese origins?
Racist national narratives
When I taught the topic of global reproductive justice several years ago at Georgetown University, a flagship Catholic institution, I frequently noticed that many of my students became especially animated when we turned our attention to China and India. Examples of state-sponsored coercive population control, such as China’s post-1980s one-child policy and India’s experiment with forced vasectomies in the 1970s, seemed to resonate as archetypal abuses in their minds. Indeed many students already knew about the problem of female foeticide and infanticide in these countries; it was clear to me that for those who had been raised within strong Catholic anti-reproductive rights environments, China and India were widely maligned. These countries were understood as places with a criminal predilection for sacrificing life. The very real and pernicious social problems of misogyny and son preference compounded by economic inequality in China and India, all of which local activists have struggled against, had been displaced by accounts that equated national identities with these national crimes.
This backdrop helps me make some sense of the Indiana case, and what is a shocking criminalisation of two clearly suffering pregnant women. I believe that Indiana prosecutors have been emboldened in charging the Chinese and the Indian woman of foeticide because of how China and India serve as poster children in global evangelical crusades against abortion. It is vital to note that in both these legal cases, the defendants held that they did not intentionally end their pregnancies. Shuai argued that she tried to commit suicide because of her depression, and Patel argues that she experienced a miscarriage. But their protests have not carried weight; I sense it is easier for jurors, judges, and indeed the public to suspect these two women of having infanticidal tendencies because of the narratives that circulate in so-called “pro-life” circles about their countries of origin.
Setting aside the racist national narratives that this case illustrates, let us imagine for a moment the plight of women who might indeed seek to terminate unwanted pregnancies. It is a sign of how deeply eroded reproductive rights have become in the contemporary US that foeticide has become synonymous with infanticide. In the text of the case summary and the affidavits filed in court, the language used to describe the foetus is consistently that used to describe children: “dependents” and “child”. Patel has been charged with “Neglect Of Dependent Resulting In Death, of a victim less than 14 years”. The complex wrangling over the gestational age of her foetus – whether it was 24, 25, 26 weeks – matters only because the viability of the foetus has become the centrepiece in such cases; the actual intention and willingness of the pregnant woman to become a mother has been completely sidelined.
Interestingly, and perhaps scarily, this case took the trajectory it did because of a zealous doctor, Dr Kelly MacGuire, who is a member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstericians. This was the doctor called in to examine Patel for a second opinion at the emergency room, who, after examining her (and not, importantly, the foetus), declared that she was 30 weeks pregnant and set off himself to search in dumpsters where Patel said she had placed the dead foetus. His methods and authority in making determinations about the age of the foetus have been challenged by other doctors, as have the methods used by the autopsy physician Dr Joseph Prahlow. But these challenges remain a conversation about the foetus, rather than about Patel’s rights.
Even the most forceful petition that is circulating about Purvi Patel has defended her on technical grounds: it mentions that there was no evidence that she had taken abortifacient drugs (as the prosecutors claim), and maintains that she experienced a home stillbirth. Her right to end a pregnancy that she might not have wanted has receded to the background. My Catholic students agonised a great deal about forced sterilisation in China and India. I think we need to also renew worries about the creeping ascendance of forced motherhood in the US.
Ashwini Tambe is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park. She is also the Editorial Director of the journal Feminist Studies