Nebraska Mom Gets 2 Years in Prison After Buying Abortion Pills for Her Teen Daughter

“Here's the audacity: Self-managed abortion is not even a crime in fucking Nebraska,” an advocate told Jezebel. The case is a harbinger of more criminalization.

Nebraska Mom Gets 2 Years in Prison After Buying Abortion Pills for Her Teen Daughter
Photo:KTIV (Fair Use)

On Friday, a Nebraska judge sentenced Jessica Burgess to two years in prison after she bought abortion pills for her teen daughter and helped bury the fetal remains in early 2022, according to reporters from Norfolk Daily News and Courthouse News. The sentencing went forward without a court-ordered psychological evaluation that the judge canceled for lack of funding last week. Burgess had faced up to five years in prison after she accepted a plea deal. With good behavior, she could be released in a year.

Burgess pled guilty in July to three charges (tampering with human remains, false reporting, and abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation) in exchange for prosecutors dropping two others (concealing the death of another person and abortion by someone other than a licensed physician). ​​States have criminalized people for their pregnancy outcomes for decades—even, as in this case, while​​ Roe v. Wade stood—but advocates worry these types of charges, against people seeking abortion and those who help them, will only become more frequent as millions of people live under state abortion bans.

“In this particular case, here’s the audacity: Self-managed abortion is not even a crime in fucking Nebraska,” said Rafa Kidvai, director of If/When/How’s Repro Legal Defense Fund (the fund is not representing Burgess). Self-managed abortion is now only explicitly banned in one state, Nevada, but prosecutors can and do criminalize people for self-managed abortion, miscarriage, and stillbirth by charging them under other statutes. “It doesn’t have to be [illegal]. The prosecutors are like, ‘This is illegal in my heart,’” Kidvai said.

Back in April 2022, someone tipped off police about a stillbirth and burying of fetal remains in Norfolk, Nebraska. Prosecutors allege that Burgess bought abortion pills for her daughter Celeste, who was 17 at the time. Celeste gave birth to a stillborn fetus estimated to be 29 weeks’ gestation, and they then burned and buried the remains with the help of another person (a 21-year-old man who only got probation). Police obtained a warrant for Facebook messages between the mother and daughter and Facebook parent company Meta complied, providing the messages in which they allegedly discussed ending Celeste’s pregnancy with pills.

At the time, Nebraska banned abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization (or 22 weeks after the last menstrual period), which meant abortion care after that point was unavailable to Celeste in clinics or hospitals. Even though that law applies to licensed abortion providers, not people self-managing their own terminations, Jessica Burgess was still charged.

Emma Roth, staff attorney with Pregnancy Justice, told Jezebel in July after Celeste was sentenced to jail time for concealing or abandoning a dead body that it’s clear prosecutors will “stretch laws far beyond their intended scope” in order to charge people. “They’re desperate to file some kind of charge to ensure that they criminalize what they view as immoral behavior,” she said. (Celeste, who was charged as an adult, pled guilty to a felony charge in exchange for getting two other charges dropped. She was sentenced in July to 90 days in jail and two years’ probation, and was released last Monday after serving 53 days.)

Some people reading about the case are getting hung up on the timeline and debating abortion later in pregnancy, instead of focusing on the broader issue of criminalizing abortion and stillbirth. Roth and Kidvai say the state is more than happy to let them.

“It is not illegal to self-manage an abortion in the vast majority of states, irrespective of gestational age,” Roth said. “This [prosecution tactic] is speaking to the court of public opinion rather than the court of law.” The prosecutors in this case “tried to paint a portrait of this mother and daughter in a negative light and to deprive them of their humanity and to erase the fact that we’re talking about a teenager who was not ready to have a child.”

Kidvai noted that “none of this is about justice or safety or someone’s health or society being better or kinder or safer—this is about control from the state,” they said. “Everything is a distraction, including conversations around gestational age.” Kidvai added, “They’re distracting you constantly by telling you that your individual choices are the problem, not the systems that keep you oppressed.”

Elizabeth Ling, senior helpline counsel at If/When/How, said in a statement that charges like those made against Burgess and Celeste aren’t new but they are scary. “We should all be outraged that prosecutors in Nebraska chose to misuse the law and criminalize a mother who was simply supporting her daughter. No one should have to fear punishment for helping a loved one make the best decision for themselves, including when they decide to self-manage their abortion.”

Ling said the case will “deepen the climate of fear and confusion” following the end of Roe, which the group is already seeing every day via people who call the Repro Legal Helpline.

This isn’t the first time a state has criminalized a mom for helping her own child end a pregnancy outside the medical system. In 2012, Pennsylvania mother Jennifer Whalen helped her teen daughter get abortion pills because clinic care was inaccessible to them. Whalen’s daughter was scared when she started bleeding, so they went to the ER and told staff she’d taken the pills. She was discharged without incident but the hospital system reported Whalen to state child-protective services; in 2014 the state sentenced Whalen to 9 to 18 months in jail.

Republican politicians and conservative lawyers have signaled that they will continue to target people who help others get abortions, whether they seek that care in other states or outside the medical system.

People who need assistance self-managing a miscarriage or abortion can call the Miscarriage + Abortion Hotline at (833) 246-2632 for confidential medical support, or the Repro Legal Helpline at (844) 868-2812 for confidential legal information and advice.

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