A Nebraska woman took a plea deal Friday in a case that involved her ordering abortion pills for her teenage daughter. Self-managed abortion isn’t explicitly illegal in the state—only Nevada and South Carolina ban it—but prosecutors can and do criminalize people for abortion, miscarriage, and stillbirth by charging them under other statutes. (In this case, the mother had five charges brought against her, including concealing a death and false reporting.) Advocates worry these kinds of charges will only become more frequent as millions of people live under state abortion bans.
Jessica Burgess, 42, admitted to helping her daughter end her pregnancy in the spring of 2022—before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Madison County prosecutors claim that, in April 2022, Burgess gave abortion pills to her then-17-year-old daughter, Celeste, who gave birth to a stillborn fetus estimated to be at about 29 weeks’ gestation. The pair then burned and buried the remains with the help of another person; a 21-year-old man who only got probation.
Someone tipped off the police that Celeste had a stillbirth and buried the remains, and then cops obtained a warrant for Facebook messages between her and her mother. Facebook parent company Meta complied and provided the messages, in which the pair allegedly discussed ending Celeste’s pregnancy with pills. A friend of Celeste’s also told the police she was there when Celeste took the first abortion pill. (Most people charged for self-managed abortion were reported by health care workers or friends and acquaintances.) Celeste was charged as an adult and plead guilty in May; she faces a two-year prison sentence.
Jessica Burgess initially plead not guilty to five charges, for which she faced eight years in prison. On Friday, she plead guilty to three charges (tampering with human skeletal remains, false reporting, and abortion after 20 weeks gestation) and the state dismissed the other two (concealing the death of another person and abortion by someone other than a licensed physician). She now faces up to two years in prison.
Jessica’s sentencing is set for September 22; Celeste will be sentenced on July 20.
This isn’t the first time a state has criminalized a mother for helping her own daughter end a pregnancy outside the medical system. In 2012, Jennifer Whalen helped her teen daughter get abortion pills when clinic care was inaccessible to them in Pennsylvania. Whalen’s daughter was scared when she started bleeding so they went to the emergency room, and told staff she’d taken mifepristone and misoprostol. She was discharged without incident but the hospital system reported Whalen to state child-protective services; the state sentenced Whalen to 9 to 18 months in jail.
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.