A Nebraska teenager who used abortion pills to terminate her pregnancy was sentenced Thursday to 90 days in jail after pleading guilty earlier this year to illegally hiding human remains.
The teenager, Celeste Burgess, 19, and her mother, Jessica Burgess, 42, were indicted last year after police obtained their private Facebook messages, which showed them discussing plans to pose termination of pregnancy and « burning evidence ».
Prosecutors said the mother had ordered abortion pills online and given them to her daughter in April 2022, when Celeste Burgess was 17 and in her third trimester of pregnancy. The two then buried the remains of the fetus themselves, police said.
Jessica Burgess pleaded guilty in July to violating Nebraska’s abortion law, providing false information to a law enforcement officer, and removing or hiding human skeletal remains. She faces up to five years in prison for her Sept. 22 conviction, according to Joseph Smith, the top prosecutor for Madison County, Neb.
The police investigation into the Burgesses began before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.
But the case gained more attention after the court issued its ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, stoking fears that women, and those who help them, could be prosecuted for abortion and that their private communications could be used against them.
At the time, Nebraska banned abortions after 20 weeks of conception. In May, Governor Jim Pillen, a Republican, signed a 12-week ban into law.
Greer Donley, an associate law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said in an interview Thursday that the case was a « garrison of things to come, » as a flurry of Republican-led states enacted restrictions on the abortion and more women in those states have sought abortion pills as an alternative solution.
‘This case is really sad because people resort to things like this when they’re really desperate,’ said Professor Donley, ‘and the thing that makes people really desperate is abortion bans.’
Nebraska Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, had praised prosecutors for enforcing Nebraska’s 20-week law.
The executive director, Sandy Danek, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. But she said in an interview last year that liability should extend to providers who ship abortion pills to states like Nebraska that require an in-person doctor to oversee medical abortions.
« This disturbing act may become more common as the abortion industry continues to promote self-abortion where there is no medical oversight for risks and complications, » she said.
According to prosecutors, Celeste Burgess used abortion pills long after the 10 weeks allowed by the Food and Drug Administration.
Court records indicate that she was nearly 30 weeks pregnant when she terminated the pregnancy — beyond the generally accepted 23 to 24 weeks as the point of viability, when a fetus would most likely be able to live outside the womb.
The vast majority of abortions in the United States occur in the first 13 weeks.
Prosecutors did not charge Celeste Burgess under Nebraska’s abortion law. She pleaded guilty in May to removing or hiding human skeletal remains, a felony. Prosecutors agreed to drop two felony charges against her: death cover-up and false reporting.
In addition to 90 days in prison, she was sentenced to two years of probation. The county public defender’s office, which represented it, declined to comment on Thursday.
Mr Smith, the prosecutor, said the sentence « seems reasonable, » since Celeste Burgess had no criminal record. She said the case was the first abortion-related case she had prosecuted in her 33 years on the job.
« It’s a painful case for everyone, » he said, « and I’m glad it’s over. »
Mr. Smith noted that the case didn’t start as an investigation into an illegal abortion.
In late April 2022, police in Norfolk, Neb., approximately 115 miles northwest of Omaha, began investigating « concerns » that a 17-year-old had given birth to a stillborn prematurely and that she and her mother had buried, according to court records.
A detective subpoenaed medical records showing the teen was pregnant with a due date of July 3. When she interviewed the Burgesses, they said the baby was stillborn in a bathtub and showed him where they’d buried him.
The detective said he learned later that the women had actually buried the remains and then dug them up, taken them north of the city and reburied them. Finally, they moved the remains a third time.
At one point, a man who helped them told police the women had tried to burn the fetus. The remains were exhumed and showed signs of « thermal injuries, » the detective wrote.
When she asked her daughter for the exact date her pregnancy ended, she consulted her Facebook messages. She obtained a warrant for all correspondence her mother and daughter exchanged on Facebook Messenger.
She found evidence of a doctor-induced abortion, writing that the daughter « talks about how she can’t wait to get that ‘thing’ out of her body. »
Elizabeth Ling, a senior helpline counselor at If/When/How, an abortion rights group, sharply criticized the allegation, saying it « has added to the climate of fear that keeps people from seeking health care », including medical abortion.
« I am disturbed and appalled that, while self-administered abortion is not illegal in Nebraska, prosecutors chose to punish a young man by unjustly arming their laws against them for allegedly terminating her own pregnancy, » she said in a statement. declaration.