What the arrest in Starr County means for abortion access in the RGV

by | Apr 13, 2022 | Policy, Reproductive Rights

The Signal recently spoke with Nancy Cardenas Pena, Texas state director for policy and advocacy for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, one of the three abortion justice groups that helped free Lizelle Herrera in Starr County. 

Herrera, 26, was arrested and charged with murder over a self-induced abortion on Thursday and released after abortion fund groups helped her post bail on Saturday. The charges against her were dropped and the case dismissed. “In reviewing applicable Texas law, it is clear that Ms. Herrera cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her,” said Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez in a statement.

The story made national headlines as an example of Texas’ draconian abortion laws, but it’s not yet clear why authorities arrested Herrera in the first place or decided to charge her at all. 

In the following interview edited for length and clarity, Pena speaks about her thoughts on the case, its effect on abortion access in the Rio Grande Valley, and Senate Bill 8 which bans abortion after six weeks of preganny and Senate Bill 4, which bans abortion-inducing pills from being shipped to Texas.

What was your reaction to the arrest in Starr County?

When we first heard about it, it knocked the wind out of me for a lot of different reasons. We do this work here in the Rio Grande Valley alongside our partners at the Frontera Fund and South Texans for Reproductive Justice, and we’ve been doing this work for a really long while. 

It’s also something that is impactful just because it’s in our home, this is the Rio Grande Valley, this is where I was born and raised, and so I was very taken aback.

I’ve seen some folks say this might have a sort of chilling effect on abortion access. Do you see that happening? Not everybody is 100 percent familiar with the details of the case, they may think it’s something relating to Senate Bill 8.

I think that’s the general case of misinformation that’s going around. Whenever someone passes through the legislature, especially bills like SB 8 and SB 4, there is an intention of creating that misinformation and confusion.

You and I both know the way that SB 8 is written, it’s written in a way where it’s vague enough to create that blurry space as to what exactly is “aiding and abetting” that would violate SB 8. 

I think that we’re in a very similar situation right now where folks don’t exactly know what’s legal or what’s not, and entrusting medical providers with information. They are definitely concerns in conversation that we’re going to have to with the community.

Senate Bill 8 has been in effect for more than 200 days. Can you tell me about how you have seen the law impact abortion access in Texas? 

I think we’re having conversations with the community about what their resources, what their rights are, and what alternatives look like.

And of course there are folks who can leave the state of Texas — which they shouldn’t have to for abortion care — but here in the Rio Grande Valley those conversations look very different just because folks who do not have papers can’t cross those internal immigraiton checkpoints.

And so our conversations look a little differently because traveling out of the state is something that’s just not possible. And I think folks are very curious and are asking a lot of questions about alternatives towards in-clinic abortions. We are hearing many more questions about medication abortion and what the resources around that looks like.

It’s been incredibly challenging working under this newfound reality. Definitely this element of fear, even with people like me who do this work because there’s so much back and forth, so much misinformation.

Even though we understand what’s in the law and what isn’t, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. The point is to take us to court to waste our time, our money and create that fear. It’s after that there has to be some sort of evidence presented, but you know the opposition is very organized and it works in that way.

Self-managed abortions have taken on a larger role since SB 8. Can you talk to me about that and what folks concerned with the new restrictions should know about self-managed abortions or medication abortion?

I think that people need to understand that the United States and Mexico have always had this healthcare transaction. Medication abortion is offered over the counter in Mexico and it’s something thats been accessible to people that can enter Mexico and come back.

But because of the implementation of SB 8 and SB 4 we’re definitely having many more conversations about what that looks like. 

A big portion of our work is also making sure that people have access to the information that they need. I’m making sure that information is available in both English and Spanish because medication abortion if followed correctly is a very safe procude and its something that people prefer. 

It’s just, we need to have a much larger conversation about how medication abortion isn’t going to be the answer to all of our needs for accessing abortion care just because in-clinc abortion care is still so critical and important.

Original photo: Kai Medina / Wikimedia Commons

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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