01 April 2015

Jailed For Miscarrying

I read a news report yesterday that I have been thinking about it ever since. I want to share it with you. Please be warned that the facts of the story contain some graphic details. (I have adapted my description of the facts from a UPI story that you can read for yourself here.)

The story is that of Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old woman of Hindu descent from mostly Irish-Catholic South Bend, Indiana. In July 2013, Patel miscarried a pregnancy at her home, where she lived with her immigrant parents and grandparents. It is not clear exactly how advanced the pregnancy was - that was one of the issues at her later trial. But Patel expelled, along with a lot of blood, a recognizable fetus, which she claims was dead. (Whether it was actually dead at the time was also an issue at the trial.)

A few hours after miscarrying, Patel went to a local hospital, because she was bleeding heavily. Before she left for the hospital, she cleaned up the mess and put the fetus in a dumpster at a shopping center across the street from the hospital. She then presented herself in the emergency room for treatment of her heavy bleeding.

Although Patel did not initially tell the emergency-room doctor all of the details of what had happened, it was apparent to him that she had recently given birth. Her womb still contained a placenta and a severed umbilical cord, and the doctor opined that her pregnancy had been "fairly far along." The doctor decided that he was looking at a case of child abuse, and, as a mandatory reporter, called the police and sent them to Patel's home in search of a newborn baby.

Told that the police were on their way to her home, Patel revealed to the doctor that the fetus was across the street in a dumpster. The doctor relayed that information to the police, who gathered at the shopping center across the street to conduct their search. Patel went into surgery to have the placenta removed; while that was going on, the doctor joined the police outside and assisted them with their search. They found the fetus fairly quickly, exactly where Patel had told them it was, and it was definitely dead.

A criminal investigation was initiated, on the theory that the fetus had been born alive and breathing, and that Patel's neglect had caused its death. Patel was interrogated as she emerged from anesthesia in the recovery room at 3:00 AM, without benefit of a Miranda warning, and was ultimately charged with child neglect and infanticide under Indiana law.

The pretrial investigation uncovered text messages between Patel and a friend in which they had discussed buying abortion drugs online, but there was no evidence that Patel had ever purchased them. Both she and the fetus tested negative for the presence of the drugs. To support its theory that the fetus had been viable, the prosecution hired a pathologist who placed the fetal lungs in water and observed that they floated, and were therefore capable of holding air.

Patel was convicted, after a jury trial, on both counts. She was sentenced on March 30 to twenty years' imprisonment.

I find this case troubling - even horrifying - on many levels. The aggressive prosecution of a woman in her situation raises many very serious issues. Where were the emergency room doctor's ethical loyalties - to his patient, or to the police? Most states have statutes in place that protect doctor-patient communications from disclosure in legal proceedings. The idea is that doctors must be able to treat their patients effectively, without fear of legal reprisal. Where was the confidentiality in this situation? Did Patel have a right to expect that her doctor would not turn her in to the police?

Why was Patel questioned right after coming out of surgery, without benefit of a lawyer and without being advised that she was entitled to one? (The Miranda requirement is federal and not subject to the Indiana legislature's whims.) Many of the questions she was asked while coming out of anesthesia seem unnecessarily harassing and even irrelevant. (According to the UPI report, she was apparently questioned repeatedly about the identity and race of the father.)

On a larger scale, what sort of precedent do we set by prosecuting a case like this? Will women be discouraged from seeking medical assistance after miscarriage, for fear of being charged with a fetus's death? Should a woman who delivers a fetus prematurely at home be given the responsibility of determining its viability and, in her extremis, seeking medical care for it? Will women be charged criminally if they miscarry after engaging in poorly-advised behaviors during pregnancy (drinking alcohol or eating unpasteurized cheese, for instance, or failing to wear a seat belt? Skipping their vitamins)? Patel's defenders have noted, pointedly, that the law under which she was charged has been used only twice - both times against immigrant women. (The other woman apparently attempted suicide by poisoning herself during her pregnancy, and her newborn died shortly after birth.) Is this a simple fact of circumstance, or is there, as Patel's defenders charge, discrimination afoot?

I know many of my readers will have a lot to say about this. Please let me know what your thoughts are, in the comments. I know that this is a highly-charged issue, but I trust you to keep your comments civil.

30 March 2015

The Approach of Spring

There is no feeling like spring.

It comes every year, without fail, though we begin to wonder whether it will. This year, it is particularly welcome, as we’ve had an unusually snowy and cold winter. This morning – March 30 – there was a light cover of snow on the ground when I woke up. It’s gone now, and the sun is struggling to come out, but the fact remains that spring is a process, not something that happens suddenly and clearly. Two steps forward, one step back.

So much has happened since I last wrote, on the small stage and on the larger one. My second daughter got into her first-choice college via the early decision process in mid-December. Swearing that she does not want to be “that kid” who gets into college and then coasts for the rest of senior year, she has kept up her academic and extracurricular efforts admirably. I don’t know that I’d be working as hard as she is if I were in the same situation. She sees graduation on the horizon – her own personal spring, if I can make that comparison – after the long, cold winter of hard work during junior and senior year. It’s coming, and the blossoms will be beautiful.

I’m horrified, and admittedly terrified, by much of the news I read on a daily basis. Legalized discrimination – the thing our parents’ generation fought so hard to defeat – is creeping back into our national life. If you are a regular reader, you know how I feel about the use of the concept of “religious freedom” to marginalize entire groups of people. As a nation and as a society, we need to treat all people – men, women, old, young, gay, straight, and of all ethnic backgrounds – with the basic dignity that all people deserve. In establishments of public accommodation – stores, restaurants, malls, and schools – all people must be offered equal service, regardless of the proprietor’s personal prejudices. This should not be negotiable in 2015. I am absolutely horrified to see that it apparently is.

And last week’s deliberate plane crash in the Alps. I’m afraid of flying to begin with. My husband has permanent fingernail-marks in his arms to prove it. The idea that one person could use his status as a pilot, a position of public trust, to commit mass murder absolutely terrifies me. I’m not sure what can be done about it. Do we ban everyone who has ever been treated for mental issues from flying planes, or operating other public conveyances? That seems extreme. Someone on the radio said that, given how rare these events are, it seems impractical to change the way cockpit door locks operate. I’m sure that the families who lost someone are not comforted by the idea that it’s statistically unlikely to happen to anyone else anytime soon.


And yet, despite the ice and cold and the hard work and the terrible news, spring approaches. The idea that hope is on the horizon is one we need to cling to. We can’t do anything else. What are you hoping for this spring?

02 December 2014

On Race, Violence, and Social Constructs

C. Loring Brace, an American anthropologist at the University of Michigan, argues that, biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race. What we think of as "race," in humans, is simply the concentration of inherited physical traits in a given population, based on geography and, to a great extent, social isolation.

In other words, people from different parts of the world tend to show different physical traits based on where they live, or, more accurately, where their ancestors lived. For example, people originally from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and the Americas tend to have darker-toned skin and eyes; people from northern Europe and other parts of Asia tend to have lighter skin and eyes. For millennia, travel to and from those places was limited, so people selected their mates from the local population - the people they were most likely to meet. This meant that their offspring bore the physical characteristics of their parents, and with the passing generations, each population took on a distinctive look specific to its location.

And that distinctive look is the root of our concept of "race."

The second part of the race puzzle is social isolation. For most of human history, the different "races" did not mix extensively because travel to other parts of the world was difficult, and the odds of meeting people who had very different physical characteristics were low. As travel became easier and more efficient, however, two things happened: the more economically powerful northern Europeans began to subjugate people with darker skin, enslaving them and otherwise treating them as inferior to those with lighter skin. For generations, they struggled to fit into a society that rejected them as full members at the most fundamental level. And, perhaps as a result, a social taboo grew up around marrying and reproducing with people whose appearances were different from one's own. The taboo was so strong that it was encoded into law in many places. For example, the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types, known as miscegenation, was illegal in parts of the United States until 1967.

Thus, although barriers to meeting people of different national origins have been largely physically eliminated in the developed world, we still have a strong concept of "race" embedded in our consciences. We know the physical differences between black people and white people quite well; we can identify them on sight. And we still, unfortunately, treat these people differently based on the most superficial of criteria.

Because, you see, all human beings are biologically the same. We are of the same genus and species, and our biological functions do not differ significantly. (Oh, sure, there are some populations that are more prone than others to various maladies, or that have certain strengths or immunities that others do not have, but these are small differences that do not, and should not, affect our ability to treat each other equally in the eyes of the law.)

The more I learn about the theory of race being a false construct, the more I like it. The inequality that we, as a society, experience and enforce on a daily basis, is all in our heads. If you remove skin color and feature shape from the equation, all you have left is bare humanity.

If you recognize the entire concept of "race" as the natural extension of an unjust and outdated social construct, the scales fall from your eyes. The young black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August becomes simply a young man killed by a police officer. The twelve-year-old black boy shot in Cleveland by the white police for playing with a toy gun simply becomes, well, a dead twelve-year-old boy. As the us-and-them dichotomy disappears, the feeling of horror rises. What have we done? And what are we doing?

A Facebook friend attacked me last week for the sin of sending my children to a public school that is apparently not "racially diverse" enough for her tastes. She boasted that she herself had attended an "integrated" school, and that she in turn had sent her children to a school that had a lot of "blacks."

I send my children to the local public schools, which have a sizeable first- and second-generation immigrant population, a high proportion of children for whom English is not a first language, and strong representation of Jewish, Asian, and Muslim cultures. Though I chose the location of my house, I did not choose the ethnicity, religion, or skin color of my neighbors. They are who they are, and I cherish my community for the people in it. When I explained this to my friend, she responded, "Asian people don't count. They tend to excel at integrating into our society. Your school isn't diverse unless it has a lot of black people."

Another of my Facebook friends - someone clearly, by her appearance, of northern European descent - told me that she wished "the black community" worried as much about "black on black violence" as it does about the killing of that young man in Ferguson. In doing so, she revealed to me that she is a true racist, and one of the most insidious kind: the kind that pretends to be concerned about the welfare of "the black community," but still believes, deep inside, that people with darker skin tones are more prone to violence than people with lighter skin tones, and that this tendency toward violence is something they need to solve.

But the people with dark skin are not the ones shooting unarmed teens, under color of law, on the city streets of Ferguson and Cleveland. They are, in overwhelming numbers, the ones being shot, not the ones doing the shooting. The idea that "black" people are inherently more violent than "white" people is not just racism of the most repugnant type: it's scientifically and mathematically unfounded.

I'm not finished thinking about this issue. I may never be. And neither should you be. We, all of us, have a long way to go in changing our mindsets about skin color. But we absolutely must work at it, as hard as we can. If we challenge ourselves to think of race, as Dr. Brace does, as a false construct - to measure ourselves and each other simply as people, without regard to the varied physical traits our ancestors handed down to us, we might make some progress in no longer associating skin color with tendency toward crime. We might begin to eliminate the socioeconomic injustices that have created a permanent underclass in American society - a group of people we urge to play by the rules, but then repeatedly deny full participation in our democracy. We might stop assigning a value to someone's company, in the classroom or at the dinner table, based on their blackness, their whiteness, or their Asian-ness. And we might, God willing, stop the senseless fear-fed violence that tears our society apart on a daily basis.