Indiana court tosses woman's feticide conviciton; case closely watched by abortion rights advocates
INDIANAPOLIS >> The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the feticide conviction of a woman found guilty of killing her premature infant by taking abortion-inducing drugs, saying Friday the state's law wasn't intended to be used "to prosecute women for their own abortions."
The ruling comes in the case of Purvi Patel, who was convicted of neglect and feticide last year. However, the court upheld a lower-level felony neglect of a dependent conviction.
She was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015, two years after her self-induced abortion at her family's home. Women's advocacy groups have been heavily involved in the case, saying it marks the first time a state feticide law was used against a woman because of an alleged self-induced abortion.
The appeals court ruled that Patel, who is currently in state prison on the neglect and feticide convictions, should be resentenced on the lower-level felony charge, which carries a possible prison term of between six months and three years. It wasn't immediately clear how quickly that resentencing could happen and whether Patel could soon be released from prison.
Stanford University law professor Larry Marshall, who represented Patel during the appeals court hearing in May, said Friday that he was reviewing the court's 40-page decision and would discuss it with Patel before deciding the next legal steps.
"At this point, we're going to digest it before we have any comment," he said.
The Indiana attorney general's office said it would confer with local prosecutors before deciding whether to appeal the decision.
Patel, who was 32 at the time, was arrested when she sought treatment at a local hospital for profuse bleeding after delivering a 1½-pound boy in a bathroom and putting his body in a trash bin behind her family's restaurant. Court records show she bought abortion-inducing drugs from an online pharmacy based in Hong Kong.
She used the drugs because she feared her family would discover she had been impregnated by a married man, according to documents. Patel lived with her parents and grandparents in Granger, a city just northeast of South Bend along the Michigan border.
Attorneys for Indiana argued that Patel was at least 25 weeks into her pregnancy, so her infant was just beyond the threshold of viability and took at least one breath before dying. The attorneys also argued that Indiana's feticide law could apply to a pregnant woman, not just "to third-party actors," and that Patel hadn't shown the feticide law constituted an undue burden on the right to an abortion.
The appeals court disagreed, saying the feticide law only had been used since it was enacted in 1979 to prosecute those who attacked pregnant women. The judges also wrote that the wording of state law on illegal abortions shows the Legislature "intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not women who perform their own abortions."
Patel endangered the child by not seeking medical care, but prosecutors failed to prove that her failure to do so resulted in the boy's death, the court said.
Two dozen women's advocacy groups, as well as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed friend-of-the-court briefs siding with Patel.
At least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Patel case was the first time a state feticide law was used against a woman specifically because of "an alleged self-induced abortion," said Jill Adams, executive director of the abortion-rights advocacy group Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice.
Adams said she was glad the appeals court overturned Patel's feticide conviction, but that it was still worrisome that she faced a felony neglect conviction. Adams called the prosecution a misuse of the criminal justice system.
"No person in Purvi Patel's position should have to feel threat of arrest or jail for ending their own pregnancy," she said. "That is not what these laws were put in place to do."
Associated Press writer Rick Callahan contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Patel was 32 years old, not 35, when she delivered the infant.
FILE - In this March 30, 2015 file photo, Purvi Patel is taken into custody at the St. Joseph County Courthouse in South Bend, Ind., after being sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a dependent. On Friday, July 22, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Patel, who was found guilty of killing the premature infant she delivered after ingesting abortion-inducing drugs. However, the court upheld a lower-level felony neglect of a dependent conviction. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP, File)
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