Texas Judge Tosses Murder Charge Over Woman's Self-Induced Abortion

The judge's decision did not quiet outrage or questions surrounding the case, including why prosecutors ever brought it to a grand jury

judge’s traditional wooden gavel
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A Texas judge formally dismissing a murder charge Monday against a 26-year-old woman over a self-induced abortion did not quiet outrage or questions surrounding the case, including why prosecutors ever brought it to a grand jury.

A woman who ends her own pregnancy cannot be charged with a crime under Texas law. Officials in rural Starr County, along the U.S.-Mexico border, have not released details about why they decided to pursue a case against Lizelle Herrera after being contacted by a hospital.

"There should have been no reason for a report to have been made. There should have been no reason for a criminal investigation to take place," said Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and legal director at If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice.

Lizelle Herrera
Starr County SO, NBC 5 News
Lizelle Herrera

News of Herrera's arrest on Thursday raised alarms for abortion rights advocates and sparked people to gather in protest outside the jail where she was being held on a $500,000 bond. Her March 30 indictment alleges she "intentionally and knowingly" caused the death of "an individual ... by a self-induced abortion" in early January.

Authorities have not described what exactly Herrera allegedly did, and it wasn't clear if she was accused of giving herself an abortion or assisting in someone else's self-induced abortion.

An attorney for Herrera, who was released from jail Saturday after posting bond, did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez said in a Sunday statement that he would file the motion to dismiss the charge, saying, "it is clear that Ms. Herrera cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her."

But he did not explain why the case was presented to a grand jury, nor did he reply Monday to an email from AP seeking additional information. A woman who answered the phone at his office said Sunday's statement was "the only thing he's going to say on the subject" and hung up before identifying herself.

On Tuesday, Dallas County DA John Creuzot joined district attorneys in Nueces, Fort Bend, Bexar, and Travis counties in issuing a statement condemning the state's effort to criminalize abortion. In a letter shared on Twitter, they pledged not to prosecute personal healthcare decisions.

"These were choices that did not have to be made because losing a pregnancy or ending a pregnancy or self-managing an abortion is not a crime in the state of Texas," Diaz-Tello said. "There's no requirement that health care providers turn this information over to anybody, much less to law enforcement."

Texas last year passed a law known as Senate Bill 8, or SB8, that bans abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. The law leaves enforcement to private citizens who can sue doctors or anyone who helps a woman get an abortion.

Another new Texas law prohibits doctors and clinics from prescribing abortion-inducing medications after seven weeks and prohibits the delivery of the pills by mail.

Neither law authorizes any action against the woman who ends her pregnancy, Diaz-Tello said.

"The problem is though when you have this heightened situation of suspicion and fear and the chilling effect that this all creates, that is going to make it much more likely that health care providers are going to improperly err on the side of reporting -- err on the side of violating their patient's confidentiality and bringing in law enforcement," Diaz-Tello said.

Diaz-Tello said actions taken by the hospital and law enforcement, in this case, could lead women to be fearful of seeking health care after an abortion.

Joanna Grossman, professor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law in Dallas, said SB8 could be "indirectly playing a lot of roles here." For one, there has been an increase since SB8 in women going online to get abortion pills, she said.

Also, she said, the law sends a message "that there's just a war on abortion."

"It certainly changed access but it's also I think just changed the whole context in which people evaluate abortion care," Grossman said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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