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Your OB can get you jailed for a miscarriage and there’s not much you can do about it

Ms. Patel was accused of buying and taking misoprostol, but no supporting evidence of that was ever found.

Ms. Patel was accused of buying and taking misoprostol, but no supporting evidence of that was ever found.

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. 

Discussion

26 thoughts on “Your OB can get you jailed for a miscarriage and there’s not much you can do about it

  1. This makes me weep for all women of breeding age and makes me so relieved that I am no longer viable.

    Posted by Erin | March 30, 2015, 2:43 pm
  2. I find this whole case so, unbelievably, disturbing and in fathomable.

    Posted by Gennie | March 31, 2015, 12:09 pm
  3. Sorry – the comment published before I was finished.
    I have a difficult time understanding how any of this could have happened to this poor woman. It doesn’t even seem like a world where you are “innocent until proven guilty” or that you have autonomy over your own health and body, or that you even have a “right” to safe, timely, and appropriate medical care. Is there anything that can be done to advocate for Ms. Patel?

    Posted by Gennie | March 31, 2015, 12:13 pm
  4. HOLY CRAP. I had a miscarriage at 20 weeks, and in the toilet too. I went to the hospital in shock and bleeding. I had NO idea until now that I could have been in danger of police questioning for that. If they are going to send Ms Patel to jail, they’d better send me along with her, I guess.

    Posted by shichils | March 31, 2015, 12:33 pm
  5. I am a white woman who years ago miscarried a 20 week old fetus in Kentucky. I had gone to the emergency room countless times because I had heavy bleeding through much of those 20 weeks. When I miscarried the dead fetus at home at 20 weeks, someone anonymously called the police and told them they suspected I had aborted my fetus at home. A police detective responded to the call and fortunately went to the wrong house, and searching it found no fetus, so I was spared an investigation. The saddest part of the whole thing, however, was that I was mourning the loss and had wanted to bury the fetus. My husband freaked out though, and panicked at the thought that our house could get searched and we’d be falsely accused of something we didn’t do, so he flushed the fetus down the toilet and I never got to have a proper burial.😦 People suck. People really, really suck.

    Posted by MV | March 31, 2015, 2:15 pm
  6. This is my city.

    This happened because she had the unfortunate luck of going to the catholic, pro-life hospital, that puts babies over their mothers and won’t perform anything to do with birth control. Shoot – as a doctor you can lose your standing with that medical practice if they find out you got yourself fixed/on birth control to stop yourself from conceiving.

    Add in that the area is overwhelmingly catholic and there are crosses with broken hearts saying “in memory of aborted children” on every street, it’s no surprise.

    Posted by Naomi | March 31, 2015, 4:33 pm
  7. This is so horrible, as a woman not all pregnancy are the same and some pregnancy do not test positive. It is a shame the worries a woman experiences when the chances she might be pregnant and never knew! There has been cases where a woman went nine months before giving birth and did not know she was pregnant. Sometimes when a woman has a secondary condition, she can be pregnant and not know it. Sometimes that baby ends in miscarriage. Miscarriages are horrible things and in no shape or form is a woman okay to be question by the police. If you had a baby forceable come out of you. It was a painful, emotional thing and I don’t know why she flush the toilet. Do anybody know how many miscarriages she has, is she one of those women always having miscarriages. Where a previous doctor told her to flush the toilet. Sometimes patients get doctors that tell them to do something like that! Miscarriages are not simple, sometimes the baby died inside of you during a time you did not know you was pregnant and you don’t want the doctor to take it out but rather it comes out naturally, No one pregnancy or miscarriage is alike and I don’t think she is suppose to take that pill so late in the pregnancy. This story is too much, the police , the doctor all did not do a good job with this woman. A doctor knows better and so does the police. The fact the baby was in legal stages. It makes far worst. Nobody wants to see what had happen but there have to be another way to deal with that situation.

    Posted by Keala | March 31, 2015, 6:38 pm
  8. Dr. G, If you’d like to write a letter to the editor or any other kind of letter or petition, there is a group of 12,000 physician mommies that would be interested in it. I would bet that at least 10,000 of us would sign it. I’ve only read bits and pieces of this case from news articles and your blog, but from what I have read, the medical community should stand up to the malpractice that was committed in the conviction of this woman.

    Posted by Sarah Rowan | March 31, 2015, 7:44 pm
  9. I am an aspiring physician and a social justice poet and I am so thankful for your advocacy and for writing articulate articles that convey all of our strong sentiments with facts to back them up.

    Posted by priya | April 1, 2015, 10:50 am
  10. I’ve followed the story on your blog, and previous posts.

    It seems to me that the OB and the hospital had no right to give the cops her medical records. Why was this action not challenged in court? Was Purvi Patel too poor to have a proper defence? Or was she simply the ‘wrong’ colour?

    Why did the OB go after the dead foetus and not remain with his patient? That’s not his job, it’s for others. How is it acceptable for him to put his personal beliefs before the care of his patient?

    I’d like to think that in the UK such a situation could never occur. There have been, in the past, sort of comparable cases; but in them the medics and the court have ‘gone out of their way’ to understand what happened. Even in the case of a full term infant killed by the mother, the response has been compassion, the understanding of post-natal depression.

    America, just what is wrong with you? Where is your understanding, your compassion, your mercy?

    And, America, you expect the rest of the world to follow your moral leadership? Really? No ‘primitive’ tribe in the third would would act as you (your men) do.

    Posted by korhomme | April 1, 2015, 11:33 am
    • Your final remark could not have been anymore sexist….you do realize that there are just as many pro-life woman as there are men….which means the dr. Being a male does not have anything to do with anything…could have just as easily been a female doctor that caused all this.

      Your unjust notions make you just as bad as the Dr. and others in this article that judged and punished her based on zero facts.

      Posted by jeff | April 1, 2015, 3:12 pm
  11. I am having difficulty posting a comment to https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-tobacco-war-a-new-pbs-frontline-special. Are comments closed there?

    Posted by Suzanne | April 1, 2015, 8:59 pm
  12. check for typos\

    Posted by Yoshiko Sakamoto | April 2, 2015, 2:29 am
  13. Am appalled by this decision on so many levels. I’d like to offer personal support to Ms Patel who has lost her baby (even if she was ambiguous about the pregnancy), her freedom, and likely her family and community support. And I’d like to contribute to some kind of public response to the inhumanity of what has happened. I am in New Zealand, so am limited geographically in what I can do, but is there any possibility of an appeal (doesn’t she need a *good* lawyer?), or public actions to have her freed? Can you suggest anything I can do here?

    Posted by Lois Tonkin | April 2, 2015, 12:43 pm
  14. Perhaps a crowd sourced funding drive for an appeal with proper representation could be set up? I would contribute to that.

    Posted by Catherine Voutier | April 30, 2015, 7:01 pm
  15. Im just wondering I had a miscarriage about a wk ago but I didn’t know I was pregnant I took a pregnancy test it said negative bout a couple weeks before that I suffer with depression an ADHD an anger problems an I also get a ssi check but could the father of that baby take me yo court an could I go to jail didn’t go to hospital

    Posted by tracy | September 4, 2015, 7:59 pm
  16. My friend had induced intaruterine anembryonic pregnancy the doctor found out the illegal action and call a police to investigate.. Can she have a case even if there is no baby in her uterus and only a gestational sac? Shes still in the hospital..

    Posted by secret | April 27, 2016, 9:38 am

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