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2 April 2015

USA: Woman jailed for ‘feticide’

Purvi Patel has become the first woman to be imprisoned in America for feticide, in a case that has caused outrage worldwide.

In an excellent article for the Daily Telegraph, Cathy Newman writes

Feticide is not a term you hear very often. Even words like regicide or infanticide sound like relics from a dusty tome on medieval history. But feticide is alarmingly current - and more so since a US court ruling this week.

Purvi Patel is the first woman to be imprisoned in America for the crime of killing her own foetus. She’s been sentenced to 20 years in jail, to the outrage of women’s groups across the world.

Ms Patel, from South Bend, in Indiana, says she gave birth to a stillborn baby, and - in a panic because she had concealed her pregnancy from her conservative Hindu parents - disposed of it in a plastic bag. The prosecution countered that the foetus lived for a few seconds before dying.

There is much in the case that is disputed.

What is clear to pro-choice campaigners, though, is that state laws which were supposedly intended to target illegal abortion providers and crimes against pregnant women, are now being used to prosecute women themselves, whether they’ve tried to terminate their own pregnancies or suffered a stillbirth or miscarriage.

It’s tempting to think this kind of legal onslaught against women’s reproductive rights would never happen in Britain. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure.

Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, tells me: “We are shocked by this latest US case, but it bears remembering something not dissimilar could happen here, if the political climate towards women changed.”

Commenting on the case of Ms Patel, Gloria de Piero, shadow women’s minister says: “Women’s right to choose is something we have fought hard to establish and to protect, but we can never l be complacent. Those who disagree with abortion under any circumstances will continue to challenge the laws in place.”

And Stella Creasy, Labour MP and women’s rights campaigner, adds: “This is part of the slow drum march beat of trying to erode women’s reproductive rights that’s happening around the world. We need to be vigilant and speak out about it.”

Under current UK legislation, a woman who ends her pregnancy without getting two doctors’ signatures could be prosecuted. And a woman who bought abortion drugs online could be sent to prison.

From time to time, too, there’s a reminder that freedoms won nearly half a century ago aren’t secure. Most recently, in February, a back-bench Conservative attempted to introduce a new law to clarify that abortion on gender grounds alone is illegal in the UK. That sounded innocuous enough, but MPs - both on her own side and from opposing parties - were worried women would be prevented from confiding in doctors that they were being put under pressure to abort a child because of its gender, and that they might feel they were being criminalised. Also, the backbench bill would have enshrined in law the phrase “the unborn child”, potentially conferring on a foetus rights currently only accorded to babies once they are born.

Ms Murphy says: “We should not have been surprised to see sex selection abortion bans being adopted as a way for those opposed to abortion in principle to bring in restrictions - it is a tactic that has been developed in the US as a way to chip away at abortion rights by focusing on issues where there is a level of public discomfort to pave the way for a broader assault.”

Just such a broader assault came back in 2012 when the health secretary Jeremy Hunt declared that he backed halving the time limit for women to have abortions, from 24 weeks to 12. I wrote at the time about my very personal reasons for worrying about such a move.

The women’s minister Nicky Morgan has been pretty quiet on the issue, but we do know she voted to reduce the upper limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 20.

Right of centre parties across the globe have succumbed to pressure to adopt more conservative social policies. In Spain last year, Mariano Rajoy’s government was forced to abandon plans to tighten the country’s abortion laws. But it was a close-run thing, and would have made terminating a pregnancy illegal except in cases of rape or if a mother’s health was at risk.

No wonder campaigners for reproductive rights sometimes feel as if they’re running to stand still, and that they won’t rest until abortion is taken out of criminal law entirely.

Woman jailed for ‘killing her foetus’ - this is a sad day for us all. By Cathy Newman. Daily Telegraph, 2 April 2015

Also read:

Purvi Patel Could Be Just the Beginning. By Emily Bazelon. New York Times Magazine, 1 April 2015

It isn’t justice for Purvi Patel to serve 20 years in prison for an abortion. By Jessica Valenti. Guardian, 2 April 2015

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