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The dangerous state laws that are punishing pregnant women

By Lynn M. Paltrow and Lisa K. Sangoi

On August 31, 2016, Purvi Patel walked out of the Indiana Women’s Prison, after fighting a conviction and 20-year sentence for attempting to have an abortion. By the time she won her appeal, she had already spent over a year in prison.

While the fight for reproductive rights is generally thought of as one about access to abortion and contraception, it is increasingly clear that attacks on reproductive rights also often involve the use of the criminal legal system.

In Patel’s case, she suspected that she might be pregnant in 2013. She did not want to be pregnant, and thinking she was still early in her pregnancy, she took medication she obtained online that could safely and privately end her pregnancy. She was, however, much further along in her pregnancy than she had realized. At approximately 25 weeks of pregnancy, she delivered what she believed to be a stillborn fetus at home. Following the delivery, she disposed of the fetal remains, and sought assistance at a local hospital.

By the time she arrived at the hospital, she had already lost 20 percent of her total blood volume. After some questioning and an initial physical examination, hospital staff began to suspect that she had delivered and abandoned a newborn. While Patel was in surgery, one of the OBGYNs who examined her called the police and left the hospital to search for what he believed might be a live infant.

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