A Nebraskan mother accused of giving her 17-year-old daughter abortion pills and helping her bury the remains of the fetus pleaded guilty on Friday to violating a 2010 state law that makes it a crime to provide an abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Jessica Burgess, 42, now faces up to two years in prison—as does her daughter, Celeste, who pleaded guilty on related charges last month.
The events at the heart of the Burgesses’ case took place in spring 2022, before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Yet the charges against the mother-daughter pair drew national attention by showing how prosecutors could and would go after abortion seekers and those who support them. And the story also helped spread alarm about digital privacy when it was revealed that Facebook had turned over the teenager’s private chats to law enforcement in response to a search warrant.
As the Lincoln Star-Journal reported last August, the investigation into the Burgesses began when someone tipped off local police that Celeste had had a miscarriage, and that her mother had helped her bury the body. When interviewed, according to an affidavit, the two told police that the girl had delivered a stillborn fetus—estimated to be at about 29 weeks’ gestation—and that they had buried it with help from a young man. Both mother and daughter were charged with the felony of “removing, concealing or abandoning a dead human body” as well as two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting.
But after Celeste showed the detective a Facebook message to her mother that helped pinpoint exactly when the miscarriage occurred, the detective served Facebook with a search warrant for access to their DMs. Those messages appeared to show the two discussing how to take abortion medication and stating their intention to burn the evidence, according to records published by Vice. A week later, a friend of Celeste’s contacted prosecutors to say she had watched her friend take pills to cause a miscarriage, Jezebel revealed. Soon, prosecutors added more felony charges against Jessica: for performing or attempting an abortion on a pregnancy at more than 20 weeks and for performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor.
A few months ago, Celeste—who is now 18 and was charged as an adult—took a plea deal and admitted to removing, concealing, or abandoning a dead body; the other charges were dropped. She faces up to two years in prison at her sentencing on July 20. Under a separate plea agreement, Jessica admitted to providing an abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, false reporting, and tampering with human skeletal remains; other charges were dropped. She, too, faces up to two years in prison and will be sentenced in September, according to the Associated Press.
The young man, who helped them bury the fetus on his parents’ property, got probation.
Generally, state laws banning abortion make it a crime to provide one, not to receive one. Yet two states—Nevada and South Carolina—have specifically criminalized self-managed abortion, according to the Repro Legal Helpline, a resource run by the nonprofit legal group If/When/How. Elsewhere, prosecutors have weaponized “chemical endangerment” laws to punish women who use drugs during pregnancy. And others who allegedly attempted to end their pregnancy—through shooting themselves, stabbing their bellies, and drinking toxic levels of herbal tea—have likewise faced criminal investigations, as my colleague Nina Liss-Schultz reported in 2017. According to the national advocacy group Pregnancy Justice, over 1,700 people—overwhelmingly low-income, Black and brown women—were “arrested, prosecuted, convicted, detained, or forced to undergo medical interventions because of their pregnancy status or outcomes” between 1973, when Roe was decided, and 2020.
Mifepristone and misoprostol, the combination of medications that Celeste Burgess allegedly took, are a safe and effective way to end a pregnancy up to 12 weeks gestation, according to the World Health Organization. The use of these medications to end pregnancy up to 10 weeks has been supported by the FDA for decades.
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