By Shivana Jorawar and Deepa Iyer
It has been a year since a judge in Indiana sentenced Purvi Patel - a 33-year-old South Asian woman who sought medical attention after experiencing a pregnancy loss - to 20 years in prison. After receiving care at a hospital in South Bend, Indiana, for excessive bleeding, Patel's life was turned upside down. A doctor, who identifies as pro-life, turned her into authorities. The state of Indiana then charged her with two contradictory charges: feticide for allegedly inducing an abortion, and child neglect for allegedly having a premature baby whom she allowed to die.
Upon hearing of the prosecution, advocates in Indiana and people around the nation rallied around Patel. Reproductive rights organizations called the prosecution a back-door attempt to criminalize women for abortions and a misguided use of feticide laws - which are intended to protect pregnant women and punish people who harm them, such as abusive partners. As it stands now, laws that criminalize abortion mainly target doctors. Patel's case represents a new effort to punish women as well. Moreover, the prosecution and conviction of Patel set a precedent for punishing women who use medication abortion, who give birth at home and their baby does not survive, or who suffer a miscarriage or other pregnancy complication.
Many are aware of Patel's story given the activism and media attention around her case. However, fewer people have heard of the more recent--and almost identical--cases of Nausheen Rahman and Sharon Seudat that have occurred since Patel was imprisoned.
In Staten Island, New York, Nausheen Rahman went to a hospital seeking care for vaginal bleeding after giving birth to a baby girl at home. She was reported to police by hospital staff after they noticed there was no birth certificate on file. After police found the baby, who was not alive, Rahman was charged with second degree murder. On the day of Rahman's indictment, Sharon Seudat was arrested in Long Island after experiencing profuse bleeding and seeking emergency care. After Seudat was hospitalized, a doctor determined she had given birth. Authorities investigated Seudat's home and found the infant's body. Seudat has been charged with second degree murder and is being held on a $1 million dollar bond.
Though the full details of these cases have yet to be made public, they are disturbingly similar to Purvi Patel's story. And, they raise questions about whether South Asian women in particular are being scrutinized. Given the prosecutions of Rahman and Seudat in the year since Patel's case began, (and five years since a Chinese American woman, Bei-Bei Shuai, was prosecuted under the same Indiana feticide law), it is not a far stretch to wonder whether these stories are part of a pattern of efforts to curb the reproductive rights of Asian American women.
Is it perhaps easier for prosecutors to prove to a jury that Asian American women must have intended to harm their babies given the cultural (mis)perceptions of sex and pregnancy in Asian American families? Asian families are often thought of as particularly intolerant and unforgiving of sex and pregnancy outside of marriage. The circumstances of these cases appear to show a reliance on supposed cultural norms and practices as evidence of criminality--which should raise red flags about the ways in which racial stereotypes are used to curtail women's bodily autonomy and power.
Not surprisingly, Purvi Patel's prosecution occurred at a time when the Indiana legislature was already considering an abortion ban targeting Asian communities. This is part of a broader national pattern where, in eight states, there are sex-selective abortion bans that exploit the notion that Asian American women are likely to choose abortion when they are pregnant with a female in order to "select" for sons. In Indiana, the sex-selective abortion ban became law as part of a larger package of restrictions. At the national level, Congress is debating a similar law this week.
When Purvi Patel's case began receiving attention last year, people around the country stood up for her. In the year since Patel was sentenced to jail time, her home state has slashed reproductive rights even further and at least two other women have been charged in situations eerily similar to hers. As for Patel, her lawyers have mounted an appeal joined by a range of amici including the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF), South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice. The Indiana Supreme Court will hear the appeal in May of this year. As Patel waits in prison for the appeal process to begin, we must continue to shine more light on the injustice she endures, as well as what it could be spawning around the nation.
What You Can Do:
• Raise your voice on sex-selective abortion laws and what to do about them in your state
• Learn about how pregnant women continue to be criminalized, and campaigns to protect their rights
• Host a discussion in your community about the impact of Patel's case and reproductive rights affecting Asian American women
• Connect with and support local South Asian and Asian American groups working to advance the rights and care of women and girls
Shivana Jorawar, Esq. is a reproductive health and justice policy advocate and a board member of Jahajee Sisters, a New York based organization empowering Indo-Caribbean women.
Deepa Iyer is the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Nation and the former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).