How Grassroots Activists Forced a Texas District Attorney to Drop Murder Charges for Self-Induced Abortion

On Thursday, April 7, Texas police in the Rio Grande Valley arrested a woman and charged her with murder for allegedly self-inducing an abortion last January. The Starr County Sherriff’s Department detained 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera in a jail near the Texas-Mexico border on a $500,000 bail bond.

Reproductive justice advocates in the community organized a protest at the Starr County Jail on Saturday morning and urged people to call the jail demanding the release of Herrera. Calls poured in from across the country. By Saturday afternoon, If/When/How’s Repro Legal Defense Fund paid Herrera’s bail and she was released.

Advocates then urged people to call the Starr County District Attorney Gocha Ramirez, demanding he drop the charges. On Sunday, Ramirez issued a press release, stating that the arrest was improper and he would file a petition to drop the charges—which he did on Monday, April 11. Ramirez reportedly apologized to Herrera in a text sent to her lawyer Calixtro Villarreal on Sunday. Ramirez said she should never have been charged.

Herrera and her attorneys have declined to speak to the press about the case, so many of the details about what happened leading up to her arrest are still unknown, but reproductive justice advocates from the community have indicated what might have happened by describing the barriers to reproductive healthcare in the Rio Grande Valley.

There is only one abortion clinic in the entire Rio Grande Valley, serving over 3 million people, so people regularly travel to Mexico to receive abortion healthcare.

“There’s a single tiny clinic that is heavily policed and attacked by anti-abortion protesters all of the time,” said Jess Gomez of Frontera Fund.

One lesson learned is that people do not need to divulge that they used abortion pills because the treatment is the exact same as for miscarriage. Rockie Gonzalez of Frontera Fund reported that Herrera told hospital staff that she had used abortion pills.

 “A miscarriage and an abortion are indistinguishable to an ER physician and the care is the same, so there is no reason to risk divulging more than is needed,” said Dr. April Lockley, medical direction of the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline (M+A Hotline).

There’s a single tiny clinic that is heavily policed and attacked by anti-abortion protesters all of the time. We want to pull people away from sensationalizing this as some horrible trek to go into Mexico to get this care. No, it’s part of Sunday brunch to go to the pharmacy and get the antibiotics that you can buy over the counter there. That’s what we do because shame on Texas, we don’t have proper healthcare.

Jess Gomez, Frontera Fund

Recent restrictions on abortion in Texas made the situation even worse. In September of 2021, Texas enacted S.B. 8 banning abortion at six weeks and, in December, enacted S.B. 4 banning medication abortion after seven weeks, enforceable by criminal penalties. Some sources reported that Herrera obtained abortion pills in Mexico.

“A lot of people in our community have always gone to Mexico to seek healthcare,” said Zaena Zamora of Frontera Fund. “Part of that healthcare includes abortion care and taking medication to end pregnancy because, even before S.B. 8, access to abortion was very limited and difficult to get in the Valley. Abortion costs were very expensive in the Valley, starting at $800.”

“It’s culturally normal in the Rio Grande Valley to get your healthcare in Mexico,” said Gomez. “Growing up here, we didn’t go to American dentists or doctors. What we do is we go to Mexico because it’s quick, it’s cheap and it’s good healthcare. We have all grown up that way. It’s very normal. So when people start sensationalizing this like it’s some scandalous thing—no, we go have lunch in Mexico on Sundays. That’s what we do. We want to pull people away from sensationalizing this as some horrible trek to go into Mexico to get this care. No, it’s part of Sunday brunch to go to the pharmacy and get the antibiotics that you can buy over the counter there. That’s what we do because shame on Texas, we don’t have proper healthcare.”

Even before S.B. 8, access to abortion was very limited and difficult to get in the Valley. Abortion costs were very expensive in the Valley, starting at $800.

Zaena Zamora, Frontera Fund

When community activists heard about Herrera’s arrest on Friday afternoon, they immediately began organizing to support her. Members of Frontera Fund met with activists from South Texans Reproductive Justice and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice to organize a protest at the jail for Saturday.

Cathy Torres, organizing manager of the Frontera Fund described what happened: “So that night, we got everything together—supplies, materials—and got the word out to our socials and informed the greater community what was going on. People needed to know because this was serious. The next morning, we got to Starr County Jail at 9 a.m. and made some noise to let Lizelle know that we were there for her and supported her. We were standing with her. We were also letting the world know that this could happen to anybody. We needed to make sure that it was stated that someone was criminalized for their pregnancy outcome and to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

Gomez emphasized the importance of abortion funds to combatting the criminalization of pregnant women. “Abortion funds are really embedded in their community and because of the ties to our community, we were on the front lines. We were one of the first to know,” said Gomez. “You hear a lot about big national reproductive organizations and they do wonderful work, but they’re not on the ground and embedded in the community the way that abortion funds are, which is why it’s so important to support your local abortion funds and to support Fonterra Fund here in this militarized border community.”

On Wednesday, April 13, Frontera Fund issued a press release declaring their determination to protect reproductive rights in the Rio Grande Valley:

“We have demonstrated to authorities that we can effectively organize against unjust persecution based on pregnancy outcomes and we will continue to do so. We are carefully weighing our options and coordinating strategy for what is to come.

“In the aftermath of  S.B. 8 in Texas, the highly anticipated outcomes from the Supreme Court on the Dobbs v. Jackson case which could overturn Roe v. Wade, and the growing fear of sharing potentially life-saving information with healthcare professionals, we will fight to ensure that our families in the Rio Grande Valley and across Texas are protected from being criminally prosecuted for their pregnancy outcomes.”

To continue this important work, Frontera Fund hosted a livestream fundraiser Wednesday night with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and nine musical guests to support their work “fighting the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes and abortion, protecting our communities from the kind of atrocity experienced by Lizelle Herrera, and ensuring safe access to abortion care.”

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.