life after roe

Woman Charged With Murder After Abortion Sues Prosecutor

Abortion rights activists protest at the Federal Courthouse Plaza after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in Austin, Texas, on June 24, 2022. Lizelle Gonzalez was arrested and charged two months earlier. Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

A Texas woman who was charged with murder after an alleged self-managed abortion in 2022 has sued the Starr County District Attorney’s Office, claiming the fallout from the case has forever changed her life.

Two months before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Lizelle Gonzalez (then known as Lizelle Herrera) was arrested and booked into the Starr County Detention Center on a $500,000 bond after health officials reported her to authorities for attempting to terminate her pregnancy. At the time, Texas had already effectively banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy under SB8, which allows any private citizen to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion seeker. But the law excludes patients from being sued, and the state’s penal code also explicitly exempts people who terminate their pregnancies from prosecution.

The case quickly drew national attention and, after she spent three days in jail, the charges against Gonzalez were dropped. Now, her lawsuit claims that Starr County district attorney Gocha Ramirez and assistant district attorney Alexandria Lynn Barrera “made misrepresentations of the facts and the law to a grand jury, recklessly and callously disregarding the rights of Plaintiff, allowing a malicious prosecution to commence against her.”

The lawsuit comes months after Ramirez was investigated by the State Bar of Texas over his handling of the case. In January, he reached a settlement so that his office could continue prosecuting cases, he told the Associated Press. The settlement conditions include a $1,250 fine and a year-long probation of his legal license ending on March 31, 2025. “I made a mistake in that case,” he told the AP.

Gonzalez is seeking more than $1 million in damages. “We have no doubt that the Starr County District Attorney, and his office, were well-aware that Texas law exempts a woman who receives an abortion, by any means, from a murder charge and yet chose to pursue an unjust and unconstitutional indictment,” her attorney Cecilia Garza said in a statement. “Such a flagrant violation of Ms. Gonzalez’s basic civil rights cannot be regarded as a mere ‘mistake.’ The unlawful actions of the Starr County District Attorney’s Office irrevocably changed the course of Lizelle Gonzalez’s life.”

The lawsuit says that in January 2022, Gonzalez was 19 weeks pregnant when she took Cytotec, commonly known as misoprostol, in an attempt to induce an abortion. She went to the Starr County Memorial Hospital Emergency Department to seek follow-up care and was discharged with a diagnosis of abdominal pain after an examination found no contractions and positive fetal heart rate. Shortly after, she experienced vaginal bleeding in addition to the abdominal pain and was taken to the hospital once again via EMS. Doctors diagnosed her with an “incomplete spontaneous abortion” after failing to find the fetal heart rate and performed a C-section to deliver the fetus.

The lawsuit alleges that the hospital, “in violation of federal privacy laws,” reported Gonzalez to the Starr County District Attorney’s Office sometime between January and March. The complaint claims that “neither the Starr County Sheriff’s Office nor the Rio Grande City Police Department performed an investigation” and instead, the district attorney’s team conducted its own inquiry “based on reports from hospital personnel.” The case was then presented to a grand jury, where Ramirez and Barrera misrepresented the facts, the complaint says. Gonzalez alleges that they were aware that the Texas Penal Code explicitly carves out an exemption for murder charges if “the death of an unborn child” is related to the “conduct committed by the mother.”

About 38 states have similar laws that make it a crime to cause pregnancy loss by injuring another person, but they are often weaponized as in Gonzalez’s case, says Dana Sussman, deputy executive director of the legal advocacy group Pregnancy Justice. A report by the group published last fall found there were nearly 1,400 cases involving pregnant people who were investigated, arrested, or prosecuted between January 2006 and June 23, 2022, the day before Dobbs was decided. “From my perspective, this is one of the clearer cases of just complete misconduct because the statute, as I have read, is unquestionably clear that these charges should have never been brought,” Sussman says. “These feticide laws are always paraded out as ways to protect pregnant women from violence, but what they do is allow the state to commit violence against them by charging them with crimes in connection to their pregnancies.”

It’s also notable that the hospital allegedly reported Gonzalez to prosecutors. Care workers reported about 45 percent of the self-managed abortion cases that came to the attention of authorities between 2000 and 2020, according to a recent report by If/When/How, a legal-aid network focused on reproductive rights and abortion access. “Once she presented to the emergency room and was seeking treatment, she was treated with suspicion,” Farah Diaz-Tello, the organization’s senior counsel and legal director, says. “Her situation was turned over to law enforcement when it wasn’t necessary. Very often criminalization happens not because of what the law says, but in spite of it.”

In her lawsuit, Gonzalez says the case still haunts her. Her name and mugshot were shared by media outlets across the country, the complaint says, subjecting her to the “humiliation of a highly publicized indictment and arrest, which has permanently affected her standing in the community” even after the charges were dropped. This is a common experience among pregnant people who experience criminalization, says Diaz Tello. “They may not have a conviction on their record, but the arrest may remain. There’s not always a way to clear that, so that would come up in a background check,” she says. “Even if it doesn’t, it may come up in a Google search. It becomes a layer of stigma that a person has to contend with, and that’s far beyond any sentence.”

It’s rare for people like Gonzalez to sue prosecutors, who are usually immune from civil liability. But her lawsuit contends that, because the district attorney’s office conducted its own investigation without involving the sheriff or police departments in addition to bringing charges despite the fact that pregnant people are exempted from the state’s feticide law, immunity should not apply. “Even in a case like this, it’s a very high bar to clear legally for it to succeed,” Sussman says. “But I think it’s an important and significant step toward prosecutorial accountability. And I hope that it will be powerful for her to be in the driver’s seat of her own story.”

The Cut offers an online tool you can use to search by Zip Code for professional providers, including clinics, hospitals, and independent OB/GYNs, as well as for abortion funds, transportation options, and information for remote resources like receiving the abortion pill by mail. For legal guidance, contact Repro Legal Helpline at 844-868-2812 or the Abortion Defense Network.

Woman Charged With Murder After Abortion Sues Prosecutor