The stiff 20-year prison term given to Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman convicted of illegally inducing the abortion of her foetus, has triggered a debate on the misuse of a foeticide law that was not intended to punish women who try to end their pregnancies.
A judge in the US state of Indiana sentenced Patel, 33, on Monday, saying she had abused her position of trust when she gave birth prematurely, threw the baby into a dumpster and lied to hospital personnel about giving birth. She is the first person in US history convicted and sentenced for foeticide.
Lynn M Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said Patel's sentence marked the first time a woman in the US has been convicted and sentenced for attempting to end her pregnancy, despite claims by advocates of feticide laws that they would not be used to criminalise abortion.
"This is quite traumatic and frightening," Paltrow said, adding that more than 35 US states have feticide laws that were intended to be used if a foetus was killed by someone else. "Many people would love to see an end to abortion, but a majority of even those people don't want to see women locked up in prison."
Amy Gastelum, a registered nurse from Indiana who covered Patel's case for Public Radio International, has written that major US medical associations have condemned the use of fetal homicide laws against pregnant women.
"They say the use of these laws could send a message that if pregnant women inadvertently harm their foetuses, they could end up in prison. Doctors worry this fear could keep women from seeking prenatal care, especially pregnant women who might be addicted to illicit drugs, alcohol and perhaps even cigarettes," Gastelum wrote in an article on Patel's case.
In a piece for The Guardian, columnist Jessica Valenti wrote: "We may never know what really happened in Patel's case. She has repeatedly said that she had a miscarriage which, if true, means that the state is sending a woman to jail for not having a healthy pregnancy outcome. But even if Patel did procure and take drugs to end her pregnancy, are we really prepared to send women to jail for decades if they have abortions? Even illegal ones?"
In July 2013, Patel went to the emergency room of a hospital with heavy bleeding. She told doctors she had had a miscarriage and disposed of her stillborn foetus in a dumpster behind her family's restaurant. During questioning by police, Patel claimed she had been about two months pregnant. She said she had tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate the foetus, which wasn't moving.
She also told police she disposed of the foetus as she did not want her conservative Hindu parents to find out she had become pregnant after a sexual encounter.
Prosecutors argued that Patel had attempted to induce an abortion, based on text messages found in her phone in which she informed friend about ordering pills to induce an abortion from a pharmacy in Hong Kong.
However, a toxicologist did not find evidence of drugs in Patel's or the baby's body and Patel's attorney said prosecutors never proved she took any drug to end the pregnancy.
Patel has indicated she plans to appeal her sentence.
(With inputs from the Associated Press.)