A woman being subjected to scrutiny for foeticide is not surprising in India, where the law has attempted to clamp down on sex-selective abortions. But in Indiana in the US, an Indian-origin woman accused of foeticide has been grabbing the headlines for entirely different reasons.

On Tuesday, after five months of court trials, 33-year-old Purvi Patel was convicted by a jury of both foeticide and neglect of a dependent. She was sentenced to 70 years in prison.

The broad details of her case sound horrific. Patel allegedly delivered her foetus in her bathroom at least 24 weeks into the pregnancy, then threw the body in a dumpster. But reproductive rights activists in the US have been railing against the state for what they perceive as a woman being criminalised for choosing abortion.

The Purvi Patel case

Patel, a resident of South Bend in Indiana, found out she was pregnant in mid-2013 and had her premature delivery in July that year. According to Patel’s own initial account of the events, she had a sudden miscarriage and when the foetus was born, it did not seem to be moving or breathing. In shock and unsure of what to do, Patel claims she tried to resuscitate the infant, and when it didn’t work, she put the body in plastic bags and placed it in a dumpster behind a restaurant that her family owns.

Soon after, faced with heavy vaginal bleeding, Patel went to a hospital for help, where she first denied that she had been pregnant and later, admitting miscarriage, claimed she did not know how far along she was in her pregnancy. When the foetus was finally found in the dumpster, autopsy reports claimed it was 24-28 weeks old.

An affidavit filed after police investigations claimed, however, that this was not a case of miscarriage: in June 2013, Patel had allegedly exchanged text messages with a friend in which she mentioned that she was at least 60 days into her pregnancy and that she intended to terminate it with two drugs that she had ordered online from Hong Kong. However, a toxicologist who testified in her case claimed that no presence of those drugs was found in Patel’s blood samples after the abortion.

The trial

After several months of pre-trials, Patel was finally charged with foeticide and neglecting a dependent. Her trial began in September 2014, and the prosecution consistently claimed that the infant boy that Patel gave birth to was alive, and had taken a few breaths before being dumped. Had Patel delivered in a hospital, the child could have been saved.

Until Monday, Patel’s case hinged on whether the prosecution could prove that the infant was alive. If he was born dead, then Patel would be charged with foeticide; if he had indeed taken a breath or two after delivery, Patel would have been accused of neglect. According to activists campaigning for Patel, the two charges were contradictory, because “each charge negates the possibility of the other”.

When the jury decision was out on Tuesday, however, Patel was found guilty on both counts – she faces 50 years in jail for neglect and 20 years for foeticide, a total of 70 years.

The controversy

In the past five months, Patel’s case caught the attention of activists and media across the United States and beyond, because of an intense battle between pro- and anti-abortion campaigners.

Abortion is technically legal in the US, but each state is allowed to restrict it to varying degrees, depending mainly on the age of the foetus. In southern and Midwestern states, where pro-life, anti-abortion voices have been stronger, access to legal abortion clinics is very restricted. In Indiana, where Patel wanted to terminate her pregnancy, there are only 12 official abortion providers in just four cities.

While Patel had the legal right to seek an abortion, activists are upset over the application of the foetal homicide law in her case. The foeticide law, currently enacted in 38 American states, officially recognises an unborn child as potential victim of homicide and is meant to crack down on both illegal abortions as well as external acts of violence that endanger the lives of pregnant women and, by extension, the foetus.

Instead, say activists, the law is being increasingly used to target pregnant women themselves, in cases where they have miscarriages, still births, or even opt for abortion.

In 2011, Indiana had slapped a foeticide charge on another Asian-American woman, Bei Bei Shuai, who attempted suicide during pregnancy after she found out about her husband’s infidelity. While Shuai survived, her foetus could not be saved. Shuai had to spend a year in jail on murder charges before she was released on a plea deal – she agreed to plead guilty of criminal misdemeanour and her sentence was cut short.

Such misuse of foeticide laws tends to harm women more than protect them, say activists.

“It’s never a good idea to induce an abortion on your own, but should pregnant women be penalised when their pregnancies go awry and they need medical attention, whether or not they self-induced an abortion, attempted suicide or used drugs that caused a miscarriage?” said a news feature on Bustle by reproductive rights writer Lauren Barbato.