Abortion Stigma and the Case of Purvi Patel

04/21/2015 07:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Indiana, seriously? In a fit of conservative policy and legal bravado, the state seems to be declaring to the world, "We reserve the right to discriminate freely." If you're not the "right" religion, the "right" color, the "right" gender, the "right" sexual identity or you don't make the "right" choices, the laws are against you. And only a narrow group gets to decide what is right.

That's exactly what seems to have happened to Purvi Patel, the young woman who was just sentenced to 20 years in prison. The charges? Feticide, for allegedly attempting to induce her own abortion with pills ordered online, and child neglect, for allegedly allowing the infant to die. Though text messages about abortion pills ordered from a pharmacy in Hong Kong were found on her phone, there was no trace of the drugs in her body when she showed up bleeding at the hospital saying she'd miscarried and birthed a stillborn fetus. And the fetus became the center of debate too -- one "expert" used a centuries-old discredited test to prove it had been alive at birth.

While the legal arguments are interesting and have been explored in other pieces, what is striking to me about Patel's case is that it is a grotesque example of abortion stigma.

Years ago, colleagues and I published a paper on abortion stigma -- giving definition and framework to the phenomenon. We posited that abortion transgresses three "feminine" ideals: That female sexuality should only be for the purposes of procreation; the inevitability of motherhood; and that women are inherently and instinctively nurturing. Abortion stigma is multi-faceted and is generated and maintained through popular and medical discourses, government and political structures (seeing the Indiana state house here?), institutions such as health facilities, communities and personal interactions.

Purvi Patel defied all three of the values that we mentioned:

  1. Female sexuality: Patel is Indian-American and sex outside marriage is a social taboo in this community. Indeed, Patel states that she was unable to tell her family about the pregnancy because it would mean admitting she had sex.
  2. Patel clearly did not want to become a mother and was suspected of trying to end her pregnancy, thus defying the second ideal of femininity. So she is viewed as a "bad" woman.
  3. Observers said Patel "didn't seem upset" about the pregnancy ending. She appeared comfortable with the death of the fetus in the eyes of her medical providers and the court.

Rather than being compassionate toward Patel, hospital officials denounced her to the police and she was subjected to trial and imprisonment. This is a scenario that Ipas staff see in places like El Salvador, where abortion is banned entirely. Currently, there are 15 women in prison there because they sought medical treatment for obstetric complications. As Ipas documents in a recent report, hundreds of women throughout the region are arrested, prosecuted or imprisoned because they were suspected of having an abortion.

But Patel doesn't live in El Salvador. She lives in Indiana, where the taint of abortion stigma is still strong and powerful, inviting judgment, punishment and producing extreme forms of discrimination. It is discrimination not simply by the courts, but also by the media and the public. There has been a national outcry (and rightly so) that a Christian baker might refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but so far only a collective shrug of the shoulders when a woman of color is humiliated and stripped of her freedom on flimsy evidence.

And sadly, Patel's case isn't unique in the United States. Not even a year ago, Jennifer Whalen in Pennsylvania was sentenced to prison for child endangerment because she helped her daughter have an abortion by buying medication online. It's not even the first time Indiana has prosecuted a woman for feticide, although it is the first time a woman has been convicted. All of these women have something in common with the women targeted by the judicial system in our study: they are working class, ethnic minorities or both.

The pushback on the Indiana religious freedom bill has been strong and attracted national and even international attention. Where is the pushback on the Patel case? Why do we sit idly by as a woman is denied her fundamental human rights? Could it be because she is a non-white immigrant who defied our pre-conceived ideas of womanhood and, therefore, deserves to be stigmatized and punished? Will the day ever come that we see Angie's List and NASCAR threatening boycotts over the arrest and imprisonment of women like Purvi Patel?