New York An Indian-origin woman's 2015 foeticide conviction has been overturned by a US court in connection with her botched, self-induced abortion, with legal experts suggesting the landmark verdict could play a crucial role in future cases of abortions and foeticide.
The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday overturned the 20-year prison sentence of Purvi Patel, the Northern Indiana woman.
In a 3-0 ruling, the judges said that the state foeticide statute was not intended to apply to abortions, a report in Indianapolis Star said.
It cited legal experts as saying that — barring a successful appeal — the decision should give Indiana prosecutors pause before bringing similar charges against pregnant women in the future.
The report said in its decision, the court relied heavily on how prosecutors have applied the foeticide law in the past, noting that this case was an "abrupt departure" from its typical cases in which a pregnant woman and her unborn child are the victims of violence.
"The state's about-face in this proceeding is unsettling, as well as untenable" under prior court precedent, Judge Terry Crone said in the ruling.
The ruling however did not clear Patel of any criminal responsibility and upheld a lower-level felony neglect conviction against Patel for failing to provide medical care to the baby, who medical experts testified was alive and breathing after birth.
Patel was arrested when she sought treatment at a local hospital for profuse bleeding after delivering a boy in a bathroom and putting his body in a dumpster behind her family's restaurant.
Court records show she bought abortion-inducing drugs from an online pharmacy.
Patel, who was 32 at the time, used the drugs because she feared her family would discover she had been impregnated by a married man, according to court documents cited in the report. Patel had initially faced 20 years in jail and legal experts had said at the time that the sentence for foeticide and neglect of a dependent added up to one of the most severe penalties an American woman has faced for aborting her own pregnancy.
The report cited experts as saying that the decision contains the strongest language yet drawing a legal distinction between illegally performed abortions and feticide.
"If it's not appealed to the Supreme Court, I think it should give Indiana prosecutors pause before bringing any feticide charges against pregnant women," said Kate Jack, an Indiana-based attorney who provides local counsel for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
"I’m not willing to say the issue is 100 percent closed, but I do think it will really give pause."
Abortion rights advocates also cheered the feticide ruling but said that upholding the felony conviction sent a "mixed message" for women and threatened to create a "dangerous divide" between doctors and patients.
"The research is clear. If pregnant people fear criminal consequences, they don't go to the doctor," said Shelly Dodson, director of All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center in the report.
"... The state of Indiana is sending a clear message to anyone who is or might be pregnant that 'you don't deserve help, you don't deserve support — you deserve jail.'"
Barring an appeal, the case now returns to a lower court for sentencing on the simple felony neglect charge, which carries a maximum sentence of three years, the report said.