Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indian-American woman, is sitting in an Indiana prison serving a 20-year sentence for fetal homicide. Last spring, she became the first woman in the country to be imprisoned on that charge for allegedly ending her own pregnancy, which prosecutors said she did by taking illegal abortion pills (though no drugs were found in her system). But Patel isn’t the first woman to be prosecuted. In 2011, Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant, attempted suicide and lost her pregnancy in the process. She also was charged under Indiana’s feticide law, but pled guilty to a lesser charge.
It’s no coincidence that both of these women are of Asian descent. Across the country, Asian American women’s reproductive rights are being challenged and their family-planning decisions are being policed based on racial stereotypes held by anti-choice activists and officials.
Stories of infanticide in India and gender-based abortions in China are influencing legislation and courtrooms in the United States. As a result, states are adopting racially biased “sex-selective abortion” bans, and laws like feticide, which were intended to protect pregnant women, are being used to criminalize immigrants and Asian Americans.
Fetal homicide laws are on the books in 38 states, originally passed to support pregnant victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes. Though most states have not yet used these laws to criminalize pregnant women, Patel’s and Shuai’s cases open the door. Attorney Katherine Jack, who represented Shuai, told the Guardian that if Patel’s conviction is upheld on appeal, it “basically sets a precedent that anything a pregnant woman does that could be interpreted as an attempt to terminate her pregnancy could result in criminal liability.”
Feticide laws aren’t the only route states use to infringe on pregnant women’s rights and reproductive freedom. National Advocates for Pregnant Women has documented hundreds of cases where women have been arrested, sentenced, or forced to undergo cesarean sections on the interpretation of laws that were never intended to be used to prosecute pregnant women. Such laws have been used to target pregnant women for living in environments with potentially dangerous fumes, for attempting suicide, for not following a doctor’s prenatal advice and for improperly handling a fetus after a miscarriage.
This reproductive oppression disproportionately targets low-income women and women of color. A study of arrests of and forced legal interventions on pregnant women between 1973 and 2005 found that approximately 71 percent of those targeted were low-income, and 59 percent were women of color, predominantly African American.
Though only four women in the study were identified as Asian or Pacific Islander, the anti-Asian rhetoric in the push for these laws has heightened since the research ended in 2005. Asian women have been singled out when it comes to criminalized reproduction because of ugly stereotypes that claim we have a disregard for life.
Pointing to India and China, anti-choice advocates argue that Asian cultures are prone to child neglect and abortion. In the hospital, an officer interrogated Patel about the race of her fetus’s father, repeatedly asking “Was he Indian, too?” The officer’s implication that Patel’s race and the race of the fetus’s father had some effect on the outcome of her pregnancy reflects the anti-Asian rhetoric that’s increasingly prevalent in the debate about abortion rights.
That rhetoric was present in discussions of Indiana’s proposed ban on sex-selective abortion, which state legislators were debating during Patel’s sentencing. To support the ban, state Senator Liz Brown frequently pointed to statistics about “missing women” in China and South Asia, insisting that those cultures don’t value women and “here in the United States, we do not subscribe to that judgment.” The same misguided logic has been used in efforts to pass such laws nationwide, contributing to the spread of myths about Asian women and families. During Congressional debate in 2012, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) retold a story of a World War II veteran who said he rescued baby girls who were thrown into South Asia’s Ganges River. “That culture has arrived here in this country,” King said. “And this bill puts an end to that kind of culture that would select baby girls for death.”
Such cultural misinformation has been used to pass sex-selective abortion laws in eight states and bring them up for consideration in at least 21. But the racist accusations of proponents of these laws are false. In fact, Asian Americans have more girls on average than white Americans, according to a recent study by the University of Chicago School of Law. Still, sex-selective abortion laws were the second most-proposed abortion ban in 2013 and 2014.
These laws are part of a broader attack on women’s health and rights, which cause disproportionate harm to women of color. That the only two women prosecuted under Indiana’s feticide law are of Asian descent — when Asian residents are only 2 percent of the state’s population — is no coincidence. The conversations around anti-choice laws creates biases against pregnant Asian American women. Further, immigrant women are made more vulnerable to these laws because they are isolated from reproductive and mental health services that rarely have the cultural knowledge and language resources to reach them. As a result, they may take riskier paths to ending their pregnancies.
Feticide laws, sex-selective abortion bans and similar legislation need to be seen for what they are — proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are simply efforts to limit abortion rights through laws falsely touted as protecting women and families. Instead of criminalizing Asian American and immigrant women with these onerous laws, states should be creating culturally sensitive resources that help them safely exercise their reproductive rights and access quality mental-health care.
We cannot afford another tragedy like Purvi Patel’s persecution. Her story has shown that these laws are a threat to all women. Now, we all are at risk of having an abortion, miscarriage or premature birth turn into a life behind bars.
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