A woman in south Texas charged with murder for what law enforcement called a “self-induced” abortion has been released from jail and prosecutors have moved to dismiss the case against her following international outrage as abortion rights groups rally in her defense.
Gocha Allen Ramirez, district attorney for the state’s 229th Judicial District, said in a statement shared with The Independent that his office will file a motion to dismiss the indictment against 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera on 11 April, finding that she “cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her.”
Ms Herrera was released from Starr County jail in the Rio Grande Valley following protests outside the jail on 9 April. She was arrested and faced an indictment on 7 April for “intentionally and knowingly [causing] the death of an individual by self-induced abortion,” according to the Starr County Sheriff’s Office.
She was released on a $500,000 bond.
“The issues surrounding this matter are clearly contentious, however based on Texas law and the facts presented, it is not a criminal matter,” Mr Ramirez said in a statement. “Going forward, my office will continue to communicate with counsel for Ms Herrera in order to bring this matter to a close. It is my hope that with the dismissal of this case it is made clear that Ms Herrera did not commit a criminal act under the laws of the State of Texas.”
Rio Grande Valley-based abortion rights group Frontera Fund organized a protest outside the jail on Saturday demanding her release. The organization has launched a legal defense fund for Ms Herrera, and reproductive health and abortion care groups across the state have mobilized to her defence.
The circumstances of her arrest and the statute under which she has been charged remain unclear, with a murder charge marking an extreme advancement of anti-abortion efforts in a state that has outlawed abortion care at six weeks of pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant, while relying on private parties for its enforcement through civil suits against people who “aid and abet” women who seek an abortion.
But that law imposes civil, not criminal penalty; employees of the state are prohibited from enforcing it, and pregnant women seeking an abortion cannot be prosecuted.
Another law establishes a state felony punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to two years in prison for providing medical abortion pills after 49 days of pregnancy. That law also prohibits pregnant women from being prosecuted.
Texas also is among nine states that have outlawed abortion entirely, laws that ostensibly unenforced and deemed unconstitutional following the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court ruling in Roe v Wade.
Frontera’s founder and chair Rockie Gonzalez told Texas Public Radio that “what is alleged is that she was in the hospital and had a miscarriage and divulged some information to hospital staff, who then reported her to the police.”
“This is a developing story and we don’t yet know all the details surrounding this tragic event, what we do know is that criminalizing pregnant people’s choices or pregnancy outcomes, which the state of Texas has done, takes away people’s autonomy over their own bodies, and leaves them with no safe options when they choose not to become a parent,” she said.
“In reviewing this case, it is clear that the Starr County Sheriff’s Department did their duty in investigating the incident brought to their attention by the reporting hospital,” according to the statement from the district attorney.
“To ignore the incident would have been a dereliction of their duty,” Mr Ramirez said. “Prosecutorial discretion rests with the District Attorney’s office, and in the State of Texas a prosecutor’s oath is to do justice. Following that oath, the only correct outcome to this matter is to immediately dismiss the indidictment against Ms Herrera.”
Mr Ramirez added that the “events leading up to this indictment have taken a toll on Ms Herrera and her family” and that “to ignore this fact would be shortsighted”.
Cathy Torres, organizing manager for Frontera Fund, told The Monitor that her arrest is “just another example of how the state legislature, the city government and anti-choice people just want to strip us of our bodily autonomy.”
“They want to control the decisions that we want to make with our bodies, and that’s just not right,” she said.
Frontera Fund intends to “send a message” to Governor Greg Abbott, Starr County officials, and “hospital staff and leadership that broke patient confidentiality regarding Lizelle’s pregnancy outcome,” according to a statement from the group.
University of Texas School of Law’s Steve Vladeck stressed that proponents of the state’s six-week abortion ban insisted that it did not punish pregnant women, “but by barring medically supervised abortions after six weeks, it forces those who can’t travel to self- induce, which opens the door to prosecutions like this,” he said.
The Independent has requested comment from Starr County law enforcement officials.
“We must know all the facts, in this case, to see whether a charge of murder is even warranted,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights group. “This situation should not be turned into a sensationalized headline for political gain. Families should decide women’s health and pregnancy issues with guidance by clergy, not by the criminal courts.”
Her arrest follows a wave of anti-abortion legislation from Republican state lawmakers across the US ahead of the Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling in a case that could upend healthcare protections for women if Roe v Wade precedent is overturned.
Legal organization National Advocates for Pregnant Women said her “arrest proves the true intent of those who are fighting to overturn gnaws: the surveillance, control, and criminalization of pregnant people.”
“It is a tragedy, and just the tip of the iceberg,” the group added. “No case in Texas has ever permitted the use of the state’s murder law to address abortion or pregnancy loss. This is unconstitutional.”
Last month, Planned Parenthood found that abortion providers in Oklahoma – which sits north of Texas – reported a 2,500 per cent increase in abortion patients with Texas addresses compared to the previous year.
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, meanwhile, has signed a similar six-week abortion ban into law, and is poised to sign another measure effectively making all abortions in the state illegal.
That measure would punish any Oklahoman who performs an abortion with a 10-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $100,000.
On 8 April, a judge in Idaho temporarily blocked that state’s law banning abortion at six weeks.