Purvi Patel was sentenced today for having a premature delivery that ended in stillbirth. She was given 20 years in jail, 10 years suspended, and 5 years probation for neglect and 6 years for the feticide conviction that will run concurrently.
For those unfamiliar with the case Ms. Patel received no prenatal care and was an unknown gestational age when she delivered at home. She thought she had delivered very prematurely and that the baby was stillborn. Not knowing what to do, ill from bleeding, and psychologically affected from delivering unassisted in her bathroom she deposited what she thought was a pre-viable stillbirth in the trash.
Ms. Patel continued bleeding and so sought care at the hospital and what happened next should frighten everyone. After determining she had been pregnant the medical staff called the police and one of the OB/GYNs, Dr. McGuire, abandoned her to search with the police. Because that’s what doctors do, leave patients and play junior CSI. When the body was found Dr. McGuire told the officers he believed the fetus was 30 weeks, even though he had no qualification to make that determination. These actions starting the ball rolling as a potential homicide.
Dr. McGuire, a pro-life OB/GYN, was of course wrong. The autopsy indicted 23-24 weeks which is borderline viability and a gestational age when parents can make the decision to resuscitate on not. That didn’t matter to the prosecutor who either thought 6-7 weeks made little difference (it make all the difference in the world) or didn’t care. The fact that there was no proof Ms. Patel purchased or took abortifacients also didn’t matter.
Legal abuses aside, let’s focus on the behavior of Ms. Patel’s medical team. They simply handed over her records to the police while she was in surgery. When Ms, Patel awoke from her anesthetic she was almost immediately confronted by the police. She had lost a significant amount of blood and was incapacitated enough that she could not have driven a car.
I’ve had the police show up several times to interview inpatients and when I felt the patient wasn’t capable I told the police they would have to wait or come back or discuss the matter with the hospital’s legal counsel. My authority to make this determination was never questioned. If I wouldn’t let my patient drive a car then she isn’t medically fit to speak with the police. I can’t even fathom turning over medical records. That’s why there are court orders and hospital lawyers and medical correspondence departments.
But what of HIPAA, the medical privacy law? How can a doctor or nurse call the police, divulge your medical history, and then simply turn your records over without repercussions? HIPAA is civil so the best a wronged patient can do is sue the hospital and the personnel involved. You might win, but it’s a bit of a hollow victory if you’re now facing 20 years in jail.
This violation of privacy and zealotry towards viewing pregnancy loss as a crime should worry every woman of reproductive age with a uterus. There are cases of police traipsing though hospital rooms of women who have delivered 21 week stillbirths in toilets (that is typically what happens) all because the medical personnel had suspicions. Christine Taylor, early in her second trimester (before viability) fell down the stairs and later confided to her nurse at the hospital that she was ambivalent about the pregnancy. Her nurse called a doctor who called the police. She was jailed for two days. Bei Bei Shua tried to kill herself due to profound depression while pregnant in the third trimester, her baby died three days after delivery and she was charged with murder. All because her social worker called the police before she even delivered.
In cases like these it’s the hospital personnel going out of their way to involve the police and hand over information. If a doctor, or a nurse, or a social worker says this is a crime the police aren’t going to question it. Once the police and prosecutor get it into their head someone need to be punished the legal locomotive loses its brakes and apparently even incorrect accusations and medical facts can’t stop it.
Fetal harm laws, originally intended for violence against pregnant women, have allowed pro-life medical vigilantes to turn normal obstetrical events into crimes. Personally, I believe encroachment on abortion was always part of the agenda because once a law is on the books it’s really open to interpretation. The added bonus of doctors, nurses, and social workers “policing” hospitals for cases eager to testify against their patients gives a suggestion to the public, police, and prosecutors that this is medically valid and not what it actually is – doctor assisted criminalization of pregnancy. It is madness. It is a corruption of the legal system. It is a stain on the practice of OB/GYN.
So it really comes down to this – if you miscarry don’t accidentally flush the toilet or pass out from shock or blood loss call the police. Big Brother is watching you with a most dispassionate eye, most especially when you are bleeding on your bathroom floor or in the hospital and there is a Ministry of Information to handle little details like your dates or what you may have done or thought.
Choose your hospitals and health care providers wisely and even then be very, very careful about what you tell them.