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RIO GRANDE CITY — Cathy Torres was ready to log off for the weekend and start celebrating her 26th birthday when she got a text message with a link to a local news story: A woman in the Rio Grande Valley had been arrested for a “self-induced abortion.”
“I was just completely sick to my stomach,” Torres said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was just panicking.”
But not for long. Torres is based in Edinburg and works as the organizing manager for the Frontera Fund, a nonprofit that helps people in the Rio Grande Valley access and pay for abortions. She sent the story to the group’s leadership, as well as other reproductive rights advocacy groups in the area.
Ten minutes later, they were on a Zoom call. Fifteen minutes later, they had plans for a protest at the Starr County Jail the next day. They contacted partner organizations around the state and country to draw attention to the case, created social media messaging and started working with legal aid groups to figure out how to post bail.
Their furious work was interrupted only when there was a knock on Torres’s door: her best friend, who had driven hours to celebrate her birthday with her.
“I opened the door and she was there with balloons and I was just like, ‘Thank you so much for being here, but you won’t believe what happened,’” Torres said. “She was so great, though. She was like, ‘OK, let’s go to work.’”
Over the next three days, a coalition of small, scrappy local reproductive rights advocacy organizations fanned the flames of a national firestorm that subsided only when Starr County District Attorney Gocha Ramirez agreed to drop the murder charges against 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera.
Many details of the case remain murky. But as whole regions of the country prepare to follow Texas’ lead in significantly curtailing abortion access, local organizers say they want this weekend’s activism to send a clear message:
“I hope that people get that we’re not just going to stand back and let all of this happen,” said Nancy Cárdenas Peña, the Texas director of policy and advocacy for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. “They can’t just mess with us. We’ll fight back. We’ve proved that time and time again.”
Mobilizing a movement
The initial details of the case against Herrera were sparse: just a statement from the Starr County Sheriff’s Office saying she’d been indicted for murder for “intentionally and knowingly [causing] the death of an individual by self-induced abortion.”
She was arrested and booked into the Starr County Detention Center on a $500,000 bond.
But that was more than enough for local organizers to go on.
“It just happened. It’s still unfolding. We haven’t spoken with her family,” Torres said about those first few hours. “But what we can see right off the bat is nobody should be charged with murder with a bond of half a million dollars just because of a pregnancy outcome.”
There is a long history of abortion advocacy in the Rio Grande Valley, but in the last decade or so, several groups have joined together to advocate for legislative change, expand abortion access and help pregnant patients seek care throughout the border region.
The Frontera Fund, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, South Texans for Reproductive Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, among other groups, have created a coalition to push back against ever-tightening abortion restrictions.
And on Friday afternoon, they leapt into action. Their protest at the jail in Rio Grande City, about 240 miles south of San Antonio, was sparsely attended, but they counted every person there as a victory, considering the short notice and remote location. Starr County is an hour from McAllen and two from Brownsville.
As the story began to gain momentum online, they directed people to call Ramirez, the district attorney, and Starr County Sheriff Rene “Orta” Fuentes to demand that Herrera be released. By the end of the day Saturday, advocates said, both offices had taken their phones offline due to the deluge of calls.
They coordinated with the national reproductive legal advocacy group If/When/How to post Herrera’s bond; by Saturday night, she was out of jail. And by Sunday afternoon, Ramirez announced in a press release that his office was dropping the charges.
“Although with this dismissal Ms. Herrera will not face prosecution for this incident, it is clear to me that the events leading up to this indictment have taken a toll on Ms. Herrera and her family. To ignore this fact would be shortsighted,” Ramirez wrote. “The issues surrounding this matter are clearly contentious, however based on Texas law and the facts presented, it is not a criminal matter.”
Ramirez’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Maj. Carlos Delgado, with the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment.
The advocacy groups, which had been gearing up for a much longer fight, exhaled. Herrera was no longer in jail and no longer facing prosecution for an abortion. But it was hard to celebrate the result when the means to get there involved a woman spending three days in jail and having her name and mugshot shared around the world.
The long fight in the Rio Grande Valley
This was not the first time this coalition has had to mobilize quickly to stand in opposition to abortion-related actions.
In July, the City Council in Edinburg, just north of McAllen, moved to make the city a “sanctuary city for the unborn.” The ordinance would have made it illegal to perform or help someone in obtaining an abortion within city limits.
More than 45 cities, mostly in Texas, have passed these ordinances in the last few years. Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood dropped a legal challenge to a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance in Lubbock, which had forced the area’s only abortion provider to stop offering the procedure.
In Edinburg, which does not have an abortion provider, the ordinance had the support of the mayor and City Council. But abortion rights advocates started a social media campaign raising awareness about an upcoming public hearing on the issue.
“We had about a two-day turnaround to mobilize people, and we flooded City Hall,” Torres remembers.
The three-hour public comment period was dominated by abortion rights advocates opposing the restrictions, and at the end of the night, the council declined to bring the ordinance forward for a vote.
Torres said the advocates heard from a lot of people that the Rio Grande Valley was expected to be an easy win for abortion opponents. The area is overwhelmingly Hispanic and Catholic and has a reputation for electing conservative, abortion-opposing Democrats.
But part of the advocacy work for these groups is breaking that stereotype — and the stigma that still shrouds abortion.
“People assume that the Valley, the border, because it’s a lot of Catholicism, they have to be pro-life,” said Torres. “There’s that presence, of course. But there’s an overwhelmingly large pro-choice community too, and that’s who showed up.”
Advocates fear what comes next
For many people, Herrera’s arrest felt like a warning of what’s to come in the next few months as the U.S. Supreme Court considers overturning the constitutional protection for abortion laid out in Roe v. Wade.
Texas is one of 26 states that are primed to ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade this summer. But many in the Rio Grande Valley are already navigating limitations that are at least as restrictive as what’s to come.
There is one abortion clinic, which can only provide abortions up to six weeks of pregnancy, a point at which many people do not know they are pregnant. It’s a 10-hour drive to the nearest clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana. The state has criminalized the mailing of abortion-inducing medication.
Undocumented immigrants living along the border cannot travel beyond an internal Border Patrol checkpoint south of San Antonio, foreclosing the option of leaving the state to seek an abortion.
With fewer — or no — options, many women in the area turn to illegally obtained abortion-inducing medication from pharmacies across the border in Mexico.
That’s part of why Cárdenas Peña wasn’t surprised to see that this high-profile case of a “self-induced abortion” stemmed from the Rio Grande Valley.
“I think the Rio Grande Valley has been … already living under the conditions of a post-Roe world,” Cárdenas Pena said. “We’re definitely a testing ground for what can happen and what that organizing struggle is going to look like.”
As more than half of the country seems primed to start looking more like the Rio Grande Valley when it comes to abortion access, Cárdenas Peña said there’s a lot other states and national organizations can learn from the “beautiful struggle” these small local organizations have been engaging in for years.
“I think the resounding message is that there’s a whole community of people out there that are going to stand up and show up for abortion access,” she said. “We just give them hell, and we’re not going to stop.”
Disclosure: The ACLU of Texas and Planned Parenthood have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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