Bei Bei Shuai spent over a year in jail, held without bail for the charge of “murdering” her unborn baby by ingesting rat poison while attempting suicide. The state repeatedly denied her request for bail, stating that it is never offered in murder cases.
Eventually, she was allowed out on bond while she awaited her trial. Now, Indiana courts are offering her a chance to plea down to “attempted feticide,” a deal that would massively reduce the amount of time she could spend in jail if she is found guilty.
Bei Bei Shuai turned down prosecutors’ offer to drop a murder charge if she pleads guilty to a lesser charge of attempted feticide during a court hearing in Indianapolis, her lawyer and prosecutors said. If Shuai had accepted the deal, she could have faced six to 20 years in prison or even received a suspended sentence.
The 35-year-old Shanghai native, who was freed on bond in May after more than a year in jail, has until Aug. 31 to change her mind.
Defense attorney Linda Pence said Shuai wants to clear her name and avoid the stigma of guilt.
“She intends to fight these charges vigorously,” Pence said. “She doesn’t want any other woman to go through what she has gone through.”
After so adamantly refusing to drop the case, or even allowing Shuai bail, why would the prosecutors now be interested in offering a plea? Could it be that they had been looking for a case to set a precedent for charging pregnant women who “murder” their fetuses in utero, and are determined to get a feticide example into the books one way or another?
There is definitely some other motive driving the efforts in the prosecutors office. The chief prosecutor, Terry Curry, attempted to have an ethics complaint filed against Pence for statements made while Pence solicited donations to Shuai’s legal defense fund, saying Pence’s words were an attempt to “prejudice the potential jury pool.” It was an accusation that other legal advisers saw as the state trying to intimidate Shuai’s lawyer. Richard Kammen, a member of the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers, told The Guardian:
“This strikes me as being way outside what a prosecutor should be doing. Given the numerous public statements about this case made by the prosecutor, it makes you wonder what the agenda might be – is it to intimidate her or prevent her raising money?”
This isn’t the first attempt at intimidation from the office, either. Leaving Shuai in prison with no bail for over a year was one form, and attempting to get her to plea down to feticide by threatening her with a 45- to 65-year prison term under a murder charge is another.
Was the prosecutor’s office searching for a test case for the feticide law? A white paper supplied by Pence’s firm may support that idea. It notes that this is in fact the first time in Indiana history that a pregnant woman has ever been charged with the death of her unborn child, and the discretion that the prosecutor’s office had on whether or not to press charges in the first place.
Mr. Curry did not seek counsel from psychiatrists, physicians, or other professionals who have dedicated their lives to maternal and fetal health, nor was he interested in meeting with Ms. Shuai’s defense counsel and considering legal issues and facts which should have been considered by a prosecutor interested in understanding the implications of his momentous charging decision. Instead, he listened and built a case based on the inaccurate, unscientific, and discredited autopsy report, prepared by a relatively inexperienced pathologist who was employed by a private entity named “Biblical Dogs.”
Between the investigation into Shuai beginning almost immediately after the death of her fetus three days after birth, an autopsy report that didn’t appear to fully explore other potential causes for the brain hemorrhage that eventually killed her, and a refusal to consider bail for over a year followed up by dangling a potential suspended sentence versus spending the rest of her life in prison, all signs point to a prosecutor who wanted a feticide plea before the case ever fully got underway.
The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday vacated the feticide conviction of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced 20 years in prison for what state attorneys argued was a self-induced abortion. The good news is the court decided Patel and others in the state could not be charged and convicted for feticide after experiencing failed pregnancies. The bad news is that the court still deferred to junk science at trial that claimed Patel’s fetus was on the cusp of viability and had taken a breath outside the womb, and largely upheld Patel’s conviction of felony neglect of a dependent. This leaves the door open for similar prosecutions in the state in the future.
As Rewirepreviously reported, “In July 2013 … Purvi Patel sought treatment at a hospital emergency room for heavy vaginal bleeding, telling doctors she’d had a miscarriage. That set off a chain of events, which eventually led to a jury convicting Patel of one count of feticide and one count of felony neglect of a dependent in February 2015.”
To charge Patel with feticide under Indiana’s law, the state at trial was required to prove she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”
According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, attorneys for the State of Indiana failed to show the legislature had originally passed the feticide statute with the intention of criminally charging patients like Patel for terminating their own pregnancies. Patel’s case, the court said, marked an “abrupt departure” from the normal course of prosecutions under the statute.
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“This is the first case that we are aware of in which the State has used the feticide statute to prosecute a pregnant woman (or anyone else) for performing an illegal abortion, as that term is commonly understood,” the decision reads. “[T]he wording of the statute as a whole indicate[s] that the legislature intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not on women who perform their own abortions,” the court continued.
“[W]e conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women in the first place,” it said.
This is an important holding, because Patel was not actually the first woman Indiana prosecutors tried to jail for a failed pregnancy outcome. In 2011, state prosecutors brought an attempted feticide charge against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression who tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not.
Shuai was held in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached in her case.
The Indiana Court of Appeals did not throw out Patel’s conviction entirely, though. Instead, it vacated Patel’s second charge of Class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent, ruling Patel should have been charged and convicted of a lower Class D felony. The court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment against Patel for conviction of a Class D felony neglect of a dependent, and to re-sentence Patel accordingly to that drop in classification.
To support Patel’s second charge of felony neglect at trial, prosecutors needed to show that Patel took abortifacients; that she delivered a viable fetus; that said viable fetus was, in fact, born alive; and that Patel abandoned the fetus. According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state got close, but not all the way, to meeting this burden.
According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state had presented enough evidence to establish “that the baby took at least one breath and that its heart was beating after delivery and continued to beat until all of its blood had drained out of its body.”
Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded, it was reasonable for the jury to infer that Patel knowingly neglected the fetus after delivery by failing to provide medical care after its birth. The remaining question, according to the court, was what degree of a felony Patel should have been charged with and convicted of.
That is where the State of Indiana fell short on its neglect of a dependent conviction, the court said. Attorneys had failed to sufficiently show that any medical care Patel could have provided would have resulted in the fetus surviving after birth. Without that evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded, state attorneys could not support a Class A conviction. The evidence they presented, though, could support a Class D felony conviction, the court said.
In other words, the Indiana Court of Appeals told prosecutors in the state, make sure your medical experts offer more specific testimony next time you bring a charge like the one at issue in Patel’s case.
The decision is a mixed win for reproductive rights and justice advocates. The ruling from the court that the feticide statute cannot be used to prosecute patients for terminating their own pregnancy is an important victory, especially in a state that has sought not just to curb access to abortion, but to eradicate family planning and reproductive health services almost entirely. Friday’s decision made it clear to prosecutors that they cannot rely on the state’s feticide statute to punish patients who turn to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. This is a critical pushback against the full-scale erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy in the state.
But the fact remains that at both trial and appeal, the court and jury largely accepted the conclusions of the state’s medical experts that Patel delivered a live baby that, at least for a moment, was capable of survival outside the womb. And that is troubling. The state’s experts offered these conclusions, despite existing contradictions on key points of evidence such as the gestational age of the fetus—and thus if it was viable—and whether or not the fetus displayed evidence of life when it was born.
Patel’s attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to rebut those conclusions. For example, the state’s medical expert used the “lung float test,” also known as the hydrostatic test, to conclude Patel’s fetus had taken a breath outside the womb. The test, developed in the 17th century, posits that if a fetus’ lungs are removed and placed in a container of liquid and the lungs float, it means the fetus drew at least one breath of air before dying. If the lungs sink, the theory holds, the fetus did not take a breath.
Not surprisingly, medical forensics has advanced since the 17th century, and medical researchers widely question the hydrostatic test’s reliability. Yet this is the only medical evidence the state presented of live birth.
Ultimately, the fact that the jury decided to accept the conclusions of the state’s experts over Patel’s is itself not shocking. Weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion of guilt or innocence based on that evidence is what juries do. But it does suggest that when women of color are dragged before a court for a failed pregnancy, they will rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt.
The jurors could have just as easily believed the evidence put forward by Patel’s attorneys that gestational age, and thus viability, was in doubt, but they didn’t. The jurors could have just as easily concluded the state’s medical testimony that the fetus took “at least one breath” was not sufficient to support convicting Patel of a felony and sending her to prison for 20 years. But they didn’t.
Why was the State of Indiana so intent on criminally prosecuting Patel, despite the many glaring weaknesses in the case against her? Why were the jurors so willing to take the State of Indiana’s word over Patel’s when presented with those weaknesses? And why did it take them less than five hours to convict her?
Patel was ordered in March to serve 20 years in prison for her conviction. Friday’s decision upends that; Patel now faces a sentence of six months to three years. She’s been in jail serving her 20 year sentence since February 2015 while her appeal moved forward. If there’s real justice in this case, Patel will be released immediately.
Almost three years ago, the State of Indiana first charged Purvi Patel with both feticide and neglect of a dependent following Patel’s home delivery of what state doctors testified was a 25-week-old fetus. Today, there is still no clear picture of the events leading up to those charges. Based on the conflicting evidence presented at Patel’s seven-day trial, it’s not clear what Patel knew about her pregnancy, including how far along she was. It’s not clear what exactly happened that day in Patel’s bathroom. And, most importantly, there is no clear picture of whether the delivery resulted in a live birth.
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But on Monday, lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office argued to the Indiana Court of Appeals that none of those unknowns matter. Patel’s charges of feticide for unlawfully terminating her pregnancy and neglecting a live dependent were not contradictory. Quite simply, argued Indiana Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender, if there’s evidence that a person’s conduct contributed to the death of a fetus or a severely prematurely infant born alive that then dies, that person faces possible felony prosecution both for feticide and criminal neglect of a dependent—setting a disturbing potential precedent for pregnant people throughout the state.
The Indiana feticide statute makes it a felony for a person to “knowingly or intentionally terminate a human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” The statute is silent on whether a self-induced abortion falls under this category. Indiana prosecutors argue that it does and told the appeals court Monday that the jury verdict against Patel proved them right.
The state made a similar argument with Patel’s conviction for felony neglect of a dependent. According to the state, by taking abortion-inducing drugs, Patel created a situation that put her “dependent”—in other words, her fetus—in harm’s way. Once delivered alive, the state argued, Patel had a legal duty to immediately seek medical attention on its behalf, including clamping her umbilical cord immediately after delivery to prevent neonatal blood loss and calling 9-1-1 for emergency care. It made no difference, prosecutors said, that the medical evidence was contradictory as to whether there was a live birth at all, or what, if anything, Patel understood was happening at the time of the delivery.
Patel’s attorneys may disagree with the inferences made by the jury, state attorneys argued, but that doesn’t mean the law grants the court grounds to overturn the jury verdict.
It wasn’t clear to me at the end of oral arguments that the three-judge panel was buying the State’s argument. The judges pushed Meilaender hard on where the law should draw the line between taking nonprescribed abortion medications that produce a live birth where the baby then dies—as the state argued happened here—to drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, or taking any other host of actions that may help contribute to a miscarriage. The judges seemed to agree that it would be excessive to prosecute pregnant people for smoking, for example. The judges also appeared skeptical about the argument that the feticide statute doesn’t require the fetus to die in utero, and that even a live birth can and should be prosecuted under this statute if the accused person’s original intent was to terminate a pregnancy outside Indiana’s stringent legal abortion requirements.
But it also wasn’t clear they bought the argument of Patel’s attorney, Lawrence Marshall, that the state hadn’t met its burden of proof when it convicted her. Marshall stammered to keep the judges on point, refusing to answer whether federal constitutional precedent, from Roe v. Wade to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, would protect many other people from unchecked pregnancy policing under feticide laws. (Spoiler: The simple answer is no—as Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, to name a few, show).
The heart of the state’s negligence case against Patel rests on her alleged failure to seek care for a live birth. Yet Marshall could not specifically and directly answer the judges’ concerns that Patel, after allegedly cutting the umbilical cord during delivery, should have also immediately clamped or kinked it to prevent any blood loss to the fetus she just delivered. He did not note that it is unreasonable to expect any woman immediately following an extremely premature delivery to have the presence of mind to do such things, lest she face felony prosecution. He tried to point out that there was medical testimony at trial that at 25 weeks, severely prematurely born infants have only modest survival rates even when born at hospitals and immediately transferred to neonatal intensive care units, and tried to argue the state couldn’t prove that Patel had any idea a live birth had even happened. But all those counters appeared to fall flat on a panel of judges clearly willing to consider, and perhaps even accept, that Patel’s failure to kink her umbilical cord and call 9-1-1 immediately post-delivery was sufficient to convict her for felony neglect of a dependent.
Throughout the trial and the appeal, the state compensated for its lack of direct evidence about the situation by trying to redirect the jury’s focus to Patel’s “character,” which, prosecutors argued, helped inform the decision to convict her. Patel was in a relationship with a married man. Evidence at trial showed she had been texting back and forth with a friend concerning the pregnancy and her desire to terminate it, in part because of fears her conservative Hindu family would not support her. That’s both sexually provocative and naive, argued the state in its appellate brief—provocative because she was acting outside religious and social norms, and naive because “family would have loved her regardless and would have welcomed the baby, as it is their religious belief to love a child even if born out of wedlock and their religion is opposed to killing anyone or anything.”
Meanwhile, the state argued, the evidence that should be weighed in Patel’s favor did not matter. That included evidence at trial that showed Patel believed she was only about 12 weeks pregnant—not about 25 weeks—when she took the unprescribed abortifacient. Not important, argued the state. All that matters is her fetus was old enough to fall outside Indiana’s limit on 20-week abortions. Evidence at trial showed that Patel tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to navigate Indiana’s web of anti-choice restrictions before ordering abortion-inducing medications online; but that just demonstrates Patel had the right criminal intent to support the jury’s conviction, said Meilaender, not that those regulations are difficult for non-lawyers to navigate on their own.
In other words, argued Meilaender, the details that should normally be necessary to support a criminal conviction—details such as what Patel knew, and when—just don’t matter in this case.
Those details do matter. That’s why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected nearly identical arguments in the prosecution of Jenni Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who also terminated a pregnancy and was criminally prosecuted for it. Expecting patients to understand the intricacies of abortion restrictions or face criminal prosecution at its very core unduly burdens abortion rights, that court ruled.
It will likely be months before the Indiana Court of Appeals issues its opinion. And I’m not going to make any guesses about how this case turns out. But I will say that, despite all the unknowns in the Patel case, there are plenty of knowns that ultimately affect Patel and pregnant people in Indiana as a whole.
We know that Indiana law does not mandate sex education be taught in its schools. The Indiana Department of Education recommends its inclusion as part of a school’s comprehensive health education program. But that’s it. And for those schools that decide to offer some form of sex ed, there’s no requirement that the information provided be unbiased and medically accurate, let alone do anything other than stress abstinence-only sex ed. And of course, parents in Indiana have the option of opting out of sex ed entirely for their children should they so choose.
We also know that legal abortion in Indiana is extensively and severely restricted. First, any person seeking an abortion must receive state-mandated counseling that includes information designed to discourage the patient from having an abortion. That counseling must be done in person. Indiana law then requires a patient to wait an additional 18 hours after that counseling session before an abortion can be performed. That means, effectively, patients must make two separate trips to an abortion clinic to have the procedure. A patient must also undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion and during that ultrasound the provider must offer her the option to view the ultrasound image.
Indiana law also prohibits the use of telemedicine for medication abortion. Also, Indiana bans abortions after 20 weeks, with only a very narrow exception of when the patient’s life or physical health is at risk.
And if that patient can navigate the consent and waiting period requirements, how will they pay for the procedure? In Indiana, abortion is covered in private insurance policies only in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest, or the severely compromised health of the pregnant person. Individuals have the option of buying a separate abortion policy, but that, of course, is at additional cost.
What do Indiana’s sex ed requirements and abortion restrictions have to do with Patel’s conviction and appeal? Everything.Just like the fact that Patel, like Bei Bei Shuai before her, is not white and is not wealthy. A lack of comprehensive sex education means it’s increasingly likely other patients will, like Patel, have very little apparent understanding of the pregnancy process, particularly early on in pregnancy when indicators such as a missed period can be mixed. An increasingly draconian set of abortion restrictions means more and more patients like Patel will find themselves unable to access a legal provider or afford an abortion at all, which means that more and more patients like Patel will be forced into either attempting to self-terminate an unwanted pregnancy or carrying it to term.
Attorneys for the State of Indiana tried to tone down the “canary in a coal mine” aspect to Patel’s conviction. But there really is no denying it. During Monday’s arguments, they were pressing for the right to bring felony charges against women who terminate their own pregnancies. They insisted those prosecutions are exactly what the Indiana legislature intended when passing its feticide statute and further, such prosecutions advanced the state’s “significant” interest in protecting “unborn human life.”
Combine those arguments with the unavailability of comprehensive sex ed and the anti-choice restrictions in Indiana, and it’s clear that Patel’s case is absolutely a test case in the limits, if any, of state power to regulate pregnancies and their outcomes. Should Patel’s conviction be upheld, then the courts will have sent a very strong message to the the people of Indiana: The state expects and demands a healthy, live birth with each pregnancy, and failure to produce one could result in felony charges.