Texas DA drops murder charge against woman in abortion case

Texas DA drops murder charge against woman in abortion case
Abortion rights activists in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2019, Lorie Shaull

The district attorney of Starr County, Texas on Sunday said he would drop a murder charge against Lizelle Herrera, a woman who was arrested on Thursday for allegedly causing "the death of an individual by self-induced abortion."

"In reviewing applicable Texas law, it is clear that Ms. Herrera cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her," said District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez in a statement, adding that her case was "not a criminal matter."

Herrera's arrest sparked national outrage on Saturday after she was held on $500,000 bond in a jail in Rio Grande City. Frontera Fund, which raises funds for people in southern Texas to obtain abortion care, spoke out against Herrera's arrest on social media and joined South Texans for Reproductive Justice in leading a rally outside the jail.

The groups were credited with pressuring the district attorney to drop the charges.

It was unclear which state law Herrera was accused of breaking, and whether she was accused of helping another person self-manage an abortion or of ending her own pregnancy.

Herrera's arrest came seven months after S.B. 8 went into effect in the state. The forced-pregnancy law bans abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy and deputizes members of the public, who can sue anyone who "aids or abets" someone in obtaining an abortion—but not someone who has an abortion.

Since Herrera had criminal charges filed against her instead of a lawsuit, it's unlikely that S.B. 8 applied in this case.

"No case in Texas has ever permitted the use of the state's murder law to address abortion or pregnancy loss," said National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) on Saturday as news of Herrera's case spread. The group called her arrest "unconstitutional."

Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, told the Washington Post Saturday that the prosecutors who filed the murder charge either "forgot" that women who terminate a pregnancy are exempted from the Texas murder statute "or they have some other theory for why this could apply."

Regardless of what reasoning a grand jury used when it indicted Herrera on March 30, after a hospital reported the alleged self-induced abortion to the police, said New Republic journalist Melissa Gira Grant, "the real issue is all laws penalizing and criminalizing abortion contribute to stigma and people being arrested for pregnancy outcomes—even when the law doesn’t allow for it."

NAPW warned that healthcare workers' apparent decision to report the self-induced abortion could "frighten people away from hospitals when they need them [and] from speaking honestly to their doctors when they need them."

"We should not be living in a country where people who get pregnant are afraid to go for help at a hospital, because somebody there will turn them in or might turn them in, and it will result in arrest," Lynn Paltrow, executive director of NAPW, told Texas Public Radio on Sunday. "This is a disaster not only for any hope of equality, but also for public health."

Ramirez said he would file a motion to drop the murder charge on Monday; the local sheriff's office told the New York Times that more details about Herrera's case would also be shared with the news media on Monday. The case has alarmed reproductive rights advocates who are fighting forced-pregnancy bills in red states across the country and who fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court's right-wing majority this year.

"I think what this case really is, is an ominous portent of what things are going to look like on the ground in states that have aggressive abortion restrictions," Vladeck told Texas Public Radio.

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