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Women march in Washington D.C. in defence of abortion rights.

Purvi Patel has been jailed over charges of feticide and neglect after what she said was a miscarriage.

Why Purvi Patel’s imprisonment matters for all women

Purvi Patel has been jailed over charges of feticide and neglect after what she said was a miscarriage.

After the fallout from Indiana’s new legislation allowing discrimination against gay people, you’d think the American state would be looking to redeem itself in the public eye. But no, that would require just a little more humanity than it seems the folks in power over there have to give. I mean, why exercise understanding and compassion when you can be intolerant and hateful?

In keeping with that spectacular recommendation, Indiana this week emerged as the first American state to send a woman to jail for “an attempted self-abortion”. During the trial, prosecutors argued 33-year-old Purvi Patel had ordered drugs online to help facilitate a miscarriage and had taken them towards the end of her second trimester. They then contended that Patel had given birth to a live fetus before abandoning it in a dumpster.

Women march in Washington D.C. in 2004, in defence of abortion rights. A decade on, the issue burns as brightly as ever.

Women march in Washington D.C. in 2004, in defence of abortion rights. A decade on, the issue burns as brightly as ever.

Despite the unreliability of much of the state’s evidence (a toxicologist testified there was no trace of abortifacient drugs found in Patel’s system), it took jurors less than five hours to find Patel guilty of the contradictory crimes of ‘feticide’ and ‘neglect of a child’. On Monday, she was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Ten of those years have been suspended, meaning she now faces an incarceration period of 20 years.

There are a number of issues going on here, not least of which is that reproductive health care laws in the United States are informed by terrifying misogyny and classism. Patel is not the first woman to be jailed for what essentially amounts to a miscarriage and it’s doubtful she’ll be the last. As legislative bodies around the country introduce more and more restrictive laws around the whys, hows and whens women are entitled to seek terminations, cases like Patel’s will become more commonplace. And, as has always been the case in a social system where money and privilege opens doors, it will be marginalised women who bear the full brunt of such horrendous discrimination and dictatorial patriarchy.

Let’s be honest. Throughout history, it has never been the rich, white women who’ve been sent to jail for ending pregnancies they either didn’t want or had thrust upon them. Women of colour, poor women, disabled women, immigrant women – these are the people who will be confined to jail cells because they have even fewer options for support and medical assistance available to them in a system already predisposed to discard them.

As Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), said in commentary published in Think Progress, “What this prosecution makes clear is that not only is abortion being recriminalised in America, but that the women themselves – not just the people who perform abortions on them – can be arrested, investigated, prosecuted and sent to jail for 20 or more years.”

But, in an almost dystopian execution of laws purely designed to reinforce a conservative notion of women as incubators with secondary personhood, this grotesque bastardisation of the judicial system has already been used to punish women for having miscarriages or stillbirths. Before Patel there was Rennie Gibbs, who was just 16-years-old when she delivered a stillborn baby before being arrested on charges of murder. She faced life in prison before a judge dismissed the charges against her. Before that, there was Amanda Kimbrough. Kimbrough’s fourth child was born prematurely in 2008 and tragically died 19 minutes after birth. While still grieving her child’s loss, Kimbrough was arrested and charged with ‘chemical endangerment’. Prosecutors contended that Kimbrough, like Rennie, had caused harm to her child by consuming drugs during her pregnancy, a claim Kimbrough disputed. And, back in Indiana, in 2011 Chinese immigrant Bei Bei Shuai was arrested and imprisoned for more than year after an attempted suicide resulted in the death of a fetus she was carrying while sparing her own life.

When presented with the question of punitive justice, anti-choice protestors have largely argued against punishment for childbearers. Opposition to abortion is not, they have stressed, about punishing vulnerable people but about criminalising what they call the ‘abortion industry’. But, despite fetal homicide laws (which exist in at least 38 US states and which we are at dangerous risk of being introduced into parts of Australia) ostensibly being designed to protect unborn fetuses from third party assaults on childbearers (particularly from violent partners), their execution has been rather more terrifying. According to NAPW, by 2011 in South Carolina there had been 300 childbearers arrested as a result of fetal homicide laws. In contrast, only one man had been charged.

Listen. We will never stop the practice of terminating unwanted pregnancies. As long as there are people who can become pregnant, there will be people who seek to end those pregnancies. Criminalising the fundamental rights of women (and men with biologically female bodies) to control their own reproductive systems is an act that cannot be tolerated in a society that claims to oppose totalitarianism. There is no shortage of irony in the fact that the vast majority of people opposed to reproductive freedoms are critical of government intervention in so-called ‘private’ matters like socialised healthcare and religion in schools.

There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Comprehensive, widespread access to abortion saves women’s lives. The rarity of their occurrence is a caveat that gets thrown around by people whose public opinions are constrained by political concerns. Every person of childbearing capability has the right to determine their own reproductive choices.

Abortions should be safe, legal, widely accessible and, most importantly, nobody else’s business. And until women like Purvi Patel are free, none of us will be.

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