Generally, when someone goes through a horrifying experience, we seek to comfort them and reassure them that everything will be alright for them. Usually, when one experiences an act of violence against their person, they require being treated with care and concern. Ideally, when a traumatic experience occurs in a person’s life, they receive the help that they need to get through whatever residual issues that arise from said trauma. Unfortunately, however, that is rarely the case for many women, and it’s especially rare for women of color. This isn’t news to us, though. We’ve read about this and have heard it several times over; however, in a world where women are treated as less than, Black and Brown women are even more continually disproportionately victimized.
On May 28, 2020 CBS News published a digital documentary entitled “Jailed for Abortion in El Salvador.” In said documentary, we are introduced to several women who claim they suffered a miscarriage and their local law enforcement agencies filed charges against them for abortion. As of 1998, all abortions are illegal in El Salvador. Previously, the law made exceptions to certain circumstances like that of the life of the mother being in danger; however, since 1998, all exceptions have been removed. In this documentary, we hear personal stories of women whose lives are completely hindered by this law, and the American reporters covering their stories make sure to bridge their stories to the abortion bans currently being voted on by the United States government.
On July 13, 2020 a federal judge permanently blocked Georgia’s 2019 “heartbeat” abortion law, which would ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected in a fetus at about six weeks. This is important because the current Georgia law states that abortion is illegal about 20 weeks of gestation (that’s four months and two weeks into the pregnancy). To put it in layman’s terms, six weeks means one month and a half into the pregnancy, which is significant because usually women find out they’re pregnant between week four and seven. This blocked law is a major win for pro-choice advocates, along with yet another major Supreme Court win on June 29, 2020, when a Louisiana abortion law was also struck down. So, why are these court cases important for you and me?
Let’s begin our journey with Marshae Jones, a black woman from Birmingham, Alabama. On December 4, 2018, 27-year-old Marshae was five months pregnant and was in a physical altercation with a 23-year-old woman regarding her baby’s father. During the altercation, the 23-year-old woman, Ebony Jemison, pulled out a gun and shot Marshae in the stomach, effectively causing her to lose her unborn baby.
Now, let’s pause the story for a moment to ponder what Marshae must’ve been going through. We all know that pregnancy is a wild ride for women and their spouses—the mood swings, the cravings, the physical pain and discomfort, etc. Compile all that with the possibility of a tumultuous relationship/cheating spouse/disloyalty and it’s enough to drive a person to anger. Add a literal gunshot wound on your abdomen, which you are currently sharing with your future child, and can you imagine the pain, stress, worry, and despair a person would be in at that moment? Then fast forward to when she finds out that her baby is dead; imagine the trauma. The loss of a child is an insurmountable pain for so many, and she lost hers in the blink of an eye. She almost lost her own life too, because a gunshot wound is no laughing matter. This woman had just experienced arguably one of the most, if not the most, traumatic experiences of her life and yet, it didn’t end there.
In June of 2019 a Jefferson County grand jury indicted Marshae of manslaughter for the murder of her unborn child just seven months before. Yes folks, you heard that right. This is not a story from 1967 or 1863, this is Birmingham, Alabama in 2019. Danny Reid, the police lieutenant at the time, said, “It was the mother of the child who initiated and continued the fight, which resulted in the death of her unborn baby.” And it wasn’t until July of 2019 that the State of Alabama decided to drop the charges against her. Yes, right here in our backyard, as they say, Marshae Jones almost received a prison sentence for being a victim of a violent crime.
The National Conference of State Legislature’s website states that in the United States, “38 states have fetal homicide laws” and “29 states have fetal homicide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy.” This means that in all those 29 states, it is considered murder to end your pregnancy at any point and during any circumstance outside of a legal abortion. Alabama’s “feticide” law is the basis for which they could even try to charge Marshae with manslaughter, but this was also a possibility because of Purvi Patel.
Who is Purvi Patel, you ask? Oh, no one, just the first woman in the United States to be sent to prison for “feticide.” Alright, I know I’ve been throwing that word around without defining it so here it goes: Merriam-Webster defines Feticide as “the act of causing the death of a fetus.” So an abortion. And Purvi Patel got a 20-year sentence for this back in 2015.
Here’s the story, as written in ink all over the world wide web: On July 13, 2013 Purvi showed up bleeding profusely from her vagina at St. Joseph hospital in Mishawaka, Indiana. She told authorities that she had miscarried and dumped the body of her dead baby in a dumpster before arriving at the ER. At the time, and still today, abortion was legal in Indiana, and it wasn’t until 2019, that the state of Indiana banned abortions after week 22 (six months into gestation).
So why did Indiana convict the then-32-year-old woman for a self-induced abortion? The prosecution alleged that Patel was 25 weeks into her pregnancy and “the infant took at least one breath before dying.” Patel’s attorney alleged that she thought she was only 10-12 weeks pregnant, however, which leads us to the next question. Did anyone know that Purvi was pregnant at all?
Six months of pregnancy means that the mother’s belly has grown enough for everyone to notice the pregnancy. It means that she is most likely experiencing heartburn, hot flashes, pelvic pain, abdominal pain, etc. At 25 weeks, a baby’s lungs have yet to develop fully and 50% of women develop hemorrhoids. One can only assume that Purvi never went to her doctor about any of her symptoms and possibly even tried to hide them from her parents. One could also assume that Purvi, who lived with her Indian parents at the time, was getting increasingly worried on how to terminate her pregnancy before her parents found out. In the end, however, her 20-year sentence was overturned and Purvi, who was arrested in August of 2013, was released in August of 2016.
Purvi Patel’s story isn’t as clear cut as Marshae Jones’s. She wasn’t harmed by another and she didn’t lose her baby accidentally, but still, according to Indiana law, there shouldn’t have been reason to convict her. An abortion, if done properly, usually is followed by 2-4 weeks of abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding. The physical pain combined with the mental and emotional strain from the literal act, plus a 3 year long legal battle for your freedom as a result of said choice, would most definitely be traumatic to anyone in that situation.
Wait, but the stories don’t end here. Before Marshae and before Purvi, there was Bei Bei. As the story goes, Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese American woman living in Indiana ate rat poison after her boyfriend left her. Her boyfriend, who had promised to marry her and had just recently opened a restaurant with her, was in fact married with two kids. After her ex left her crying on a parking lot floor, Bei Bei walked into a hardware store and bought rat poison in order to commit suicide. After ingesting the poison, which did not immediately kill her, her friend’s husband spotted her at a gas station looking pale and out of sorts. After coaxing from her friends, she spent Christmas at a Methodist hospital in Indianapolis, where on New Years Eve, doctors delivered her baby via a C-section.
Everyone thought Bei Bei and her baby Angel were going to be okay, but Angel’s health declined and by January 2, 2011, Angel was taken off life support. Bei Bei’s daughter had died. Following her subsequent hospitalization for said events in March of 2011, Indianapolis authorities proceeded to charge her with murdering her fetus as well as attempted feticide, and it wasn’t until 2 ½ years later that the state of Indiana dropped the charges against her.
We tend to see political issues as black and white in society. You’re either pro-choice or pro-life, simple and easy. But we often forget that life is not black and white. Each instance and each story has its own twists and turns, and each issue comes as its own convoluted complicated mess. Each of these stories informs the other. Without Bei Bei and Purvi, what happened to Marshae could not have been a possibility, and that is the harsh reality of what could become of people if certain laws are passed. If one person is convicted of a crime today, their conviction could be the stepping stone for another’s tomorrow, and who’s to say it’ll be a just conviction in our eyes? So I urge you to pay attention to the laws passed in your states—sign petitions, become aware of what’s happening within your local governments. Your participation, your signature, your vote could be the difference between someone’s freedom and their wrongful incarceration.