Despite Plans to Drop Charges in Texas Abortion Case, Controversy Far From Over

A local prosecutor in Texas will dismiss criminal charges against a 26-year-old woman who was arrested for a self-induced abortion in a case that had drawn national scrutiny and led abortion rights activists to demonstrate on her behalf.

Following a grand jury indictment of her on March 30, Lizelle Herrera was arrested on Thursday by the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, according to Valley Central.com, which cited a spokesperson who said she “intentionally and knowingly caused the death of an individual by self-induced abortion.”

Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez said on Sunday his office would file a motion to dismiss charges against her on Monday.

Neither the district attorney nor the sheriff’s department responded to queries about when she would be released.

Starr County is on the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley region in the southern tip of Texas.

The case has reignited controversy over Texas’s strict abortion law that was largely upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in December. Known as Senate Bill 8, the law bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant, and does not exempt women who are impregnated by rape.

The Starr County prosecutor did not comment on what specific legal standard he applied and instead pointed to how the indictment has “taken a toll” on Herrera and her family.

“Lizelle Herrera was indicted for a self-induced abortion under Texas’s homicide statute. The real problem is the Texas homicide statute expressly carves out deaths of an unborn child and criminalizing the conduct of the mother of the unborn child. So the homicide statute just doesn’t apply based on the facts that we know,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Around 20 protesters gathered outside the jail on Saturday (April 9) in a show of support for the woman, organized by a local abortion resistance group.

“I think the signal to prosecutors’ offices, however, is that the eyes of the nation and maybe the world are watching Texas for a signal not only about what’s going on in Texas, but what’s about to come. And the prosecutor received a pretty clear signal that the office couldn’t overreach on the homicide statute. It’s also entirely possible that we will see civil rights lawsuits Miss Herrera’s behalf against the prosecutor’s office, and that too could have a bit of incentive effect of avoiding these kinds of prosecutions,“ Sepper said.

Texas has some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the US after a new state ban came in last year barring terminations beyond six weeks, with no exceptions for pregnancies resulting in rape or incest.

“Texas’ abortion providers have stopped providing abortions past the six week mark due to SB8, which allows any private party to sue an abortion provider or anyone who aids and abets an abortion for civil damages. But there is no criminal ban that currently applies to all abortions in Texas, and pregnant people aren’t subject to any criminal penalty for having an abortion,” Sepper said.

The law allows private citizens to take legal action against anybody who performs an abortion or assists a woman to get one after a baby’s heartbeat is detected.

“Any stranger finding out about an abortion can sue the abortion provider and receive ten thousand dollars. There’s a lot of court cases about this right now, and a number of Texas judges are now concluding that violates the Texas Constitution, in that it doesn’t represent the normal way of structuring private lawsuits where you actually have to have an injury or some sort of damage to sue someone else,” Sepper told Reuters.

The ban has been taken to the U.S. Supreme Court which has left it in place though there are still a number of legal challenges in process.

(Production: Phil Lavelle)

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