Texas judge dismisses voluntary abortion murder charge
DALLAS — A Texas judge formally dismissing a murder charge Monday against a 26-year-old woman for a voluntary abortion hasn’t allayed outrage or questions surrounding the case, including why prosecutors ever brought it before a grand jury.
A woman who terminates her own pregnancy cannot be charged with a crime under Texas law. Officials in rural Starr County, along the US-Mexico border, did not reveal details about why they decided to file a lawsuit 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.
News from Herrera’s arrest Thursday sounded alarm bells for abortion rights advocates and prompted people to gather to protest outside the jail where she was being held on $500,000 bail. Her March 30 indictment alleges that she “intentionally and knowingly” caused the death of “an individual … by voluntary abortion” in early January.
Authorities did not describe exactly what Herrera allegedly did, and it was unclear whether she was charged with having an abortion or helping someone else have an abortion.
A lawyer for Herrera, who was released from jail on Saturday after posting bond, did not immediately respond to the 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 went to a grand jury, or respond to an email from the AP on Monday requesting additional information. A woman who answered the phone at her office said Sunday’s statement was “the only thing he’s going to say on the matter” and hung up before identifying herself.
“These are choices that didn’t have to be made because losing a pregnancy or terminating a pregnancy or self-administering an abortion is not a crime in the state of Texas,” Diaz-Tello said. “There is no obligation for healthcare providers to pass this information on to anyone, let alone law enforcement.”
Texas last year is gone a law known as Senate Bill 8, or SB8, which prohibits abortions after about 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 drugs that induce abortion after seven weeks and prohibits the delivery of pills by mail.
No law authorizes action against the woman who terminates her pregnancy, Diaz-Tello said.
“The problem is that when you have this heightened situation of suspicion and fear and the chilling effect that all of that creates, it will make it much more likely that health care providers are going to be wrong on the side of reporting – err on the side of breaching their patient’s confidentiality and law enforcement,” Diaz-Tello said.
Diaz-Tello said the actions taken by the hospital and law enforcement in the case may cause women to fear seeking health care after an abortion.
Joanna Grossman, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas, said SB8 could “indirectly play a lot of roles here.” On the one hand, there has been an increase since SB8 in women going online to get abortion pills, she says.
Additionally, she said, the law sends a message “that there is just a war on abortion.”
“It certainly changed access, but I also think it changed the whole context in which people assess abortion care,” Grossman said.