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We’ve All Failed Purvi Patel

The outcry to Indiana’s “religious freedom” law was swift and forceful. Events were canceled, major businesses stopped expansions, and other state governments implemented travel bans. Shortly after the public outcry began, and the economic damage to Indiana became apparent, Gov. Pence reversed course and revised the law. The uproar and response to this law is exactly the type of collective action that should happen when a law denies people’s rights—not only because we should be ethically appalled but because this kind of action creates change.

Where then is the same response for the Indiana woman, Purvi Patel, recently sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of feticide for illegally inducing her own abortion and having a baby whom she allowed to die? Patel appeared in an emergency room stating that she had had a miscarriage and stillborn child. Patel’s conviction hinged on whether the child was stillborn, as she asserted, or born alive, as prosecutors contended—as well as on her illegal purchase of abortion-inducing drugs from overseas.

Yet, the 1979 law she was prosecuted under was created to provide legal remedy when pregnant women are killed by abusive partners or a third party. The law was not intended to criminalize abortion. In fact, it specifically states that it does not apply to legal abortion. Though hundreds of women nationwide have been charged for harm to fetuses, Patel’s conviction is thought to be the first time a law has been successfully used to convict a woman for attempting to abort a pregnancy.

The evidence presented and coverage of the case have illustrated the murky facts behind Patel’s conviction, yet she was sentenced to 20 years. And while there has been outcry from women’s rights groups and pro-choice advocates, many of those who spoke up so gallantly for repeal of the religious freedom law have remained silent. No celebrities have canceled their shows in Indiana or offered to donate ticket proceeds to charities, no business have announced they won’t expand their offices, and no other state governments have announced travel bans to Indiana until women’s rights are fully protected.

Attitudes in the United States around protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights continue to progress. There is increased acceptance of same-sex marriage and collective action when laws threaten or deny LGBT rights. The enactment of anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria and Uganda last year got quick reactions from the U.S. advocates, as well as the U.S. Department of State. Yet as public concern for promoting LGBT rights grows, as it should, we don’t seem to be keeping pace in the same way on women’s rights.

In the U.S., despite the legal status of abortion, it is becoming harder for women to access this right as states chip away at it through contrived state laws that close abortion clinics and put abortion out of reach for most women. As a resident of Indiana, Patel faced many obstacles to a legal abortion. Indiana has only 11 abortion clinics, and heavily restricts the procedure—including subjecting women to biased counseling, a mandatory waiting period, and mandatory ultrasounds.

Internationally, abortion is just, if not more, out of reach for women.

Sixty-six countries around the world either ban abortion altogether or only make exceptions to save the woman’s life; 28 of these 66 countries do not even allow exceptions to save the life of a woman. Punishment under these laws can be harsh, lengthy and arbitrary. Last year, in El Salvador, a woman was given a 40-year sentence for a miscarried pregnancy that was erroneously attributed to abortion.

But it’s not just total bans on abortion that are prohibitive. Other restrictions—including religious refusal laws allowing healthcare providers and auxiliary personnel, like pharmacists, to refuse to provide abortion services, information, and referrals—are a huge barrier. Likewise, prohibitions on public funding for abortion and laws requiring healthcare providers to report suspected instances of illegal abortion when a woman seeks post-abortion care make abortion and post-abortion services unavailable. Overseas, the harmful Helms amendment continues to stand between women and the abortion care they need—even in cases where a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy, or she is raped or a victim of incest.

These legal restrictions impact all women, but often most affect poor, displaced and young women. Sadly, for most, this is not the first time their reproductive health and rights have not been protected. Most countries, including the U.S., do too little to protect and promote the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls. Internationally, most girls do not have access to comprehensive sexuality education, nor do states actively ensure its provision through public education. More than 225 million women in developing countries do not want to become pregnant but lack modern contraception. When women do become pregnant, and they wish to maintain the pregnancy, quality and affordable ante-natal care is often out of reach because the nearest public health center is too far away. And for the women who want to exercise their right to abortion, it is becoming increasingly impossible.

Purvi Patel is set to appeal her conviction in 30 days. If her sentence stands, it will have a chilling effect, making pregnant women too fearful to seek prenatal care or services after an abortion or a miscarriage. That is why we should be outraged for Purvi Patel. The singular injustice of her sentence is horrific enough, but we must put an end to laws that strip women of their rights at every stage of their lives—only to criminalize them later for the choices that are the inevitable results of those policies. Surely, more of us can get behind that?

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