A Nebraska teenager who used abortion pills to terminate her pregnancy was sentenced on Thursday to 90 days in jail after she pleaded guilty earlier this year to illegally concealing human remains.
The teenager, Celeste Burgess, 19, and her mother, Jessica Burgess, 42, were charged last year after the police obtained their private Facebook messages, which showed them discussing plans to end the pregnancy and “burn the evidence.”
Prosecutors said the mother had ordered abortion pills online and had given them to her daughter in April 2022, when Celeste Burgess was 17 and in the beginning of the third trimester of her pregnancy. The two then buried the fetal remains themselves, the police said.
Jessica Burgess pleaded guilty in July to violating Nebraska’s abortion law, furnishing false information to a law enforcement officer and removing or concealing human skeletal remains. She faces up to five years in prison at her sentencing on Sept. 22, according to Joseph Smith, the top prosecutor in 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 greater attention after the court issued the ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, fueling fears that women, and those who help them, could be prosecuted for abortions, and that their private communications could be used against them.
At the time, Nebraska banned abortion after 20 weeks from conception. In May, Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican, signed a 12-week ban into law.
Greer Donley, an associate professor of law at the University Pittsburgh Law School, said in an interview on Thursday that the case was a “harbinger of things to come,” as a flurry of Republican-led states have enacted abortion restrictions and more women in those states have sought abortion pills as a workaround.
“This case is really sad because people resort to things like this when they’re really desperate,” Professor Donley said, “and the thing that makes people really desperate is abortion bans.”
Nebraska Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, had commended prosecutors for enforcing Nebraska’s 20-week law.
The executive director, Sandy Danek, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. But she said in an interview last year that accountability should extend to providers that mail abortion pills to states like Nebraska that require an in-person physician to oversee medication abortions.
“This disturbing act may become more commonplace as the abortion industry continues to promote the do-it-yourself abortion where there’s no medical oversight for risks and complications,” she said.
According to prosecutors, Celeste Burgess used abortion pills long after the 10 weeks permitted by the Food and Drug Administration.
Court records indicate that she was almost 30 weeks pregnant when she terminated the pregnancy — past the 23 to 24 weeks generally accepted as the point of viability, when a fetus would most likely be able to live outside the womb.
The overwhelming majority of abortions in the United States happen in the first 13 weeks.
Prosecutors did not charge Celeste Burgess under Nebraska’s abortion law. She pleaded guilty in May to removing or concealing human skeletal remains, a felony. Prosecutors agreed to drop two misdemeanor charges against her: concealing a death and false reporting.
In addition to 90 days in jail, she was sentenced to two years of probation. The county public defender’s office, which represented her, declined to comment on Thursday.
Mr. Smith, the prosecutor, said the sentence “seems reasonable,” since Celeste Burgess had no criminal history. He said that the case was the first related to abortion that he had prosecuted in his 33 years on the job.
“It’s a painful case for everybody,” he said, “and I’m glad it’s over.”
Mr. Smith noted that the case had not begun as an investigation into an illegal abortion.
In late April 2022, the police in Norfolk, Neb., about 115 miles northwest of Omaha, began looking into “concerns” that a 17-year-old had given birth prematurely to a stillborn baby and that she and her mother had buried it, according to court documents.
A detective subpoenaed medical records showing that the teenager had been pregnant with a due date of July 3. When he interviewed the Burgesses, they said the baby had been stillborn in a bathtub and showed him where they had buried it.
The detective said he later learned that the women had actually buried the remains and then dug them up, drove them north of town and buried them again. Finally, they moved the remains a third time.
At some point, a man who helped them told the police that the women had tried to burn the fetus. The remains were exhumed and showed signs of “thermal injuries,” the detective wrote.
When he asked the daughter for the exact date the pregnancy ended, she consulted her Facebook messages. He obtained a warrant for all of the correspondence that the mother and daughter had traded on Facebook Messenger.
He found evidence of a medically 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 help line counsel at If/When/How, an abortion rights group, sharply criticized the prosecution, saying that it “added to that climate of fear that keeps people from seeking health care,” including medication abortion.
“I am disturbed and appalled that, despite self-managed abortion not being illegal in Nebraska, prosecutors chose to punish a young person by wrongfully weaponizing their laws against them for allegedly ending their own pregnancy,” she said in a statement.