Celeste Burgess—the Nebraska 19-year-old who was sentenced to jail and probation on Thursday after she self-managed an abortion in April 2022 with her mother’s help—told the judge during her sentencing hearing that she was in an abusive relationship and didn’t want to parent a child with her partner.
Burgess pled guilty earlier this year to one felony charge of concealing or abandoning a dead body in exchange for prosecutors dropping two misdemeanor charges. Prosecutors allege that, when she was 17, she took abortion pills her mother purchased online, had a stillbirth at about 29 weeks, and the two burned and buried the remains. She was charged as an adult in August 2022.
According to the Norfolk Daily News, District Judge James Kube said the case was “difficult for a lot of people” and characterized the situation as Burgess simply not wanting to birth a child because of who the father was—a choice that, like any other reason for having an abortion, is a valid one. “I don’t get the impression, from reading all the reports in the pre-sentence investigation report, that there was some kind of physical health issue that was going on,” Kube said. “I tried to talk to you about that a little bit, and you confirmed that you just didn’t want this baby, you didn’t want this pregnancy based on the person that got you pregnant.” (Jezebel requested a copy of this report but a court clerk said it’s not public and is only for the judge to review.)
Kube seemed to wave away Burgess’ concerns over co-parenting with an abuser as if they were immaterial, and not a crucial part of someone’s decision whether or not continue a pregnancy. He also asked Burgess if she had considered having the remains cremated or organizing a burial, but she said that her family struggled financially and she didn’t believe they could afford the cost.
It’s not known when Burgess first learned she was pregnant or when she told her mother. At the time, Nebraska banned abortions 22 weeks after the last menstrual period, or 20 weeks post-fertilization, which meant clinical care was unavailable in the state at the stage she self-managed her abortion. (Celeste Burgess’ mother, Jessica, has pled guilty to providing an abortion after 20 weeks, but these laws are supposed to apply to licensed abortion providers, not people self-managing their own terminations. Jessica Burgess will be sentenced in September.)
Kube sentenced Celeste Burgess to 90 days in jail and two years of probation. Burgess’s lawyer, Chelsey Hartner, the deputy Madison County public defender, asked Kube for only probation given that she had no prior criminal history. Hartner also mentioned the teen has mental health issues. “I think probation is going to add that additional guidance that perhaps she needs to encourage her to keep addressing her mental health or mental health medication needs,” Hartner said. Burgess told the judge that, at the time of the incident, she was taking a drug for medical reasons that had the potential to terminate her pregnancy. She added that she had since given birth to a child and had her parental rights terminated.
Burgess said, in tears, that she was afraid of being taken away from her family. “And I’d really like to see—instead of getting locked up—I would really want a chance to actually prove to everyone that I could be a good person,” she said.
Kube wrote in his sentencing order: “The Court specifically finds that while probation is appropriate, confinement is necessary because without this confinement, it would depreciate the seriousness of the crime or promote disrespect for the law.”
It’s quite instructive to compare the legal system’s posture in this case to one in the U.K. where a mother was jailed for using abortion pills after the legal limit. That woman was released on appeal this week and one of the judges said: “This is a very sad case … It is a case that calls for compassion, not punishment.”