Decades of anti-abortion policy harming Texans

Lizelle Herrera, 26, spent three days in a Rio Grande City jail for a crime that does not exist in Texas, “self-induced abortion.”

Although we do not know all the details of the case, we know she sought medical treatment at a local hospital, and rather than receiving confidential care, she was reported, jailed and held on $500,000 bond. This treatment was not legally or ethically justified, but it is consistent with the spirit of Texas policies designed to use any means to exercise control over pregnant people’s reproductive autonomy.

The persecution of Herrera comes eight months after Texas implemented Senate Bill 8, among the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, prohibiting abortions after the detection of embryonic cardiac activity, around six weeks into pregnancy. The law has sharply curtailed abortion access and sent many scrambling for out-of-state abortion care.

As a Texas abortion provider and a researcher, we have directly seen the impacts that decades of abortion restrictions have on the lives of pregnant people. Abortion restrictions such as SB 8 are not based on science and do not improve the safety or quality of care. Rather, research has repeatedly shown that abortion restrictions lead to negative health outcomes among pregnant people and their children.

Laws that make facility-based abortion care difficult to access have the greatest impacts on structurally oppressed communities like those in the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio. Counties in the Valley are among the most economically disenfranchised in the US and have limited access to health care. They are also the farthest from any out-of-state abortion facility — nearly 600 thousand one way — and residents may be discouraged from traveling because of intensive immigration enforcement and checkpoints. Without accessible local services, people often decide to self-manage their abortions with medications they obtain on-line or in Mexico.

Herrera’s arrest was not a mistake but rather the culmination of decades of anti-abortion policy-making. Although SB 8 does not restrict self-managed abortion or allow a pregnant person to be sued, it deputizes private citizens to enforce the law, creating a surveillance culture around pregnancy. There is no medical or ethical reason to report any adult’s pregnancy outcomes to law enforcement, and if health care workers do so, they compromise quality of care.

Due in large part to the efforts of reproductive justice organizations in South Texas, Herrera was released, but this disturbing case highlights what happens when states prevent people from freely accessing their right to essential health care and create a culture of fear.

To be sure, anti-abortion organizers in Texas depict this arrest as an “error” and not the explicit intent of any legislation they have introduced or supported. But anyone who has followed Texas’ legislative sessions knows this could be a hollow claim. For at least three sessions, bills have been introduced that would make abortion a crime punishable by death penalty for both the pregnant person and the physician providing care. Since 2017anti-abortion extremists have routinely complained that without punishing pregnant people, the measures don’t go far enough.

Health care providers are community servants, not agents of the state. People need to be supported in their pregnancy decisions and provided with evidence-based care, no matter what happens.

As we await this summer’s US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that could allow states to legally pass more restrictive abortion bans, we must remember: Pregnancy outcomes are not illegal, yet. Nor should they ever be. Throwing people in jail for pregnancy outcomes should not be the Texas way.

Kari White is an associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin and the lead investigator of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project. Ghazaleh Moayedi is an OB-GYN, abortion provider and founder of Pegasus Health Justice Center.

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