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Texas woman charged with murder after abortion

People arrive at the Starr County Jail, where Lizelle Herrera, 26, was being held after being charged with murder for allegedly performing what authorities called a “self-induced abortion,” in Rio Grande City, Tex., on April 9. (Jason Garza/Reuters)
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A 26-year-old woman in Texas was arrested and charged with murder after what authorities claimed was a “self-induced abortion,” the Associated Press reported Saturday.

Lizelle Herrera was arrested Thursday and taken to the Starr County jail in Rio Grande City, along the Rio Grande and the country’s southern border with Mexico. In a statement to the AP, the local sheriff’s office said that Herrera was charged after “intentionally and knowingly causing the death of an individual by self-induced abortion,” without providing details of which legal statute she had violated.

She has been released on bond and has retained legal counsel. Her lawyer, Calixtro Villarreal, declined to comment.

News of Herrera’s arrest was first reported by the Monitor, a newspaper based in McAllen, Tex. Few details surrounding the arrest had been confirmed by Saturday afternoon. A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas declined to comment until the organization was able to learn more about the case.

It was also unclear whether authorities assert that Herrera had an abortion that violated a law or helped someone else obtain one. Neither the Starr County sheriff’s office nor the district attorney’s office responded to requests for comment.

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Texas enacted a law in September that banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant. In a method meant to evade judicial scrutiny, enforcement of the law was left to private citizens rather than state officials. Under the law, called Senate Bill 8, any person can sue anyone who performs an abortion or helps someone get an abortion after six weeks.

But that law only has civil consequences, not criminal. Therefore, it’s unclear which law authorities were relying on to charge Herrera.

“This arrest is inhumane,” Rockie Gonzalez, founder of Frontera Fund, said in a statement.

In an interview, Gonzalez said that she expects an “aggressive showing" from abortion rights advocates as Herrera’s case moves forward. “We also expect that they will have their share of support from the antiabortion right, who are going to be itching to set this precedent.”

The arrest comes as Republican-led states across the country rush to pass abortion restrictions ahead of a Supreme Court decision this summer that could overturn or significantly weaken Roe v. Wade, the case that has guaranteed abortion access nationwide since 1973.

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Texas is one of nine states that still has an abortion ban on its books that was passed before Roe. The prosecutors may have made these charges with that pre-Roe ban in mind, said Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who specializes in the federal courts and has closely followed the Texas abortion ban.

An abortion doctor from Kansas City, Mo., travels across state lines every month to provide care at clinics in the Midwest. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

That ban, which criminalizes abortion, is unconstitutional under Roe and is not in effect.

Additionally, Vladeck noted, Texas law explicitly exempts a woman from a criminal homicide charge for aborting her pregnancy.

He said either prosecutors don’t know about the exception, or they have a theory for why the exception does not apply in this case.

“It is possible that a prosecutor thought, ‘here’s a novel case I can now bring because of the pressure S.B. 8 has created,’ ” Vladeck said. “Local prosecutors are not necessarily omniscient.”

At least one Texas lawmaker has recently tried to enforce portions of the pre-Roe ban. State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R) issued cease and desist letters in March to every group in Texas that helps fund abortions, calling them “criminal organizations.”

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, Vladeck said, there will probably be more of these kinds of charges filed across the country, as other states move to enforce their pre-Roe bans or criminalize the procedure in other ways.

In the Herrera case, he added, prosecutors and others involved may be hoping to dissuade people from trying to access abortion in Texas.

One of the goals of this arrest could be to “chill people from getting abortions of any kind,” he noted.

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