Indiana recently made news for passing a religious freedom law that was a thinly disguised attempt to legalize LGBT discrimination. Now the state is in the spotlight again – this time for targeting women’s reproductive rights. An Indiana woman was just sentenced to 20 years in prison, in part for attempting to terminate her pregnancy.

A case with murky facts – but huge implications

This month, an Indiana court sentenced 33-year-old Purvi Patel to 20 years in jail after a jury convicted her of child neglect and feticide. The facts of her case are hotly contested – most notably whether the baby died in utero or later.

Both sides agree Patel went to a hospital, bleeding, to receive medical care following the loss of her baby. She told the hospital staff that her baby was stillborn and she disposed of the remains. Prosecutors say Patel bought abortion pills from China and when they didn’t work, she gave birth and threw her live baby in the trash. If she did indeed abandon a live baby, everyone agrees that’s child endangerment or worse, a homicide crime.

But Patel’s conviction for feticide and neglect of a dependent is contradictory: Feticide is the killing of an unborn fetus and child neglect occurs only after a baby has been born. Prosecutors argued that under Indiana law, a person could be guilty of feticide just for attempting to end a pregnancy, even if the fetus survives. The jury agreed. So Indiana successfully used its feticide laws to punished Patel for trying to abort – the astonishing, frightening part of the decision – regardless of what happened later.

Legal abortions unavailable in 87% of U.S. counties

Forty-one states severely restrict abortion rights. Ninety-three percent of counties in Indiana don’t even provide access to abortion. Shocking, but not an unusual statistic. In 87 percent of U.S. counties, women can’t get a legal abortion at all. Given no other option, women are taking matters into their own hands, such as buying abortion pills online from other countries, as Patel is alleged to have done.

But with feticide laws on the books in 38 states, pregnant women are being charged with crimes and condemned to prison – in some cases, even following a miscarriage. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) says the Patel case is a prime example of how frightening these laws can be:

“Both women who have abortions and those who experience pregnancy loss may now be subject to investigation, arrest, public trial and incarceration.”

We have returned to the days when the exercise of women’s reproductive rights is the stuff of criminal trials. A pregnant woman should be able to discuss her prenatal choices with her doctor freely. A bleeding American woman should be able to go to a hospital, no matter the circumstances, without fear of criminal prosecution.

Feticide laws were actually put in place to protect pregnant women against assault by others — like Scott Peterson’s killing of his wife Laci and her fetus — not to be used against pregnant mothers. These laws are now making it possible for women to be prosecuted for drug use or even for refusing to have a cesarean section.

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