Don’t believe the headlines: a Nebraska teen didn’t go to jail for having an abortion
Mary Hallan FioRito
August 18, 2023
The scene was admittedly heartbreaking: a young woman, in handcuffs, being escorted from the courtroom after being sentenced to 90 days in prison (with a 40-day reduction for good behavior). The image was circulated widely on social media and, along with it, inaccurate and outright false headlines dominating the extensive coverage of the story.
“Nebraska teen Celeste Burgess gets 90 days behind bars for late-term abortion,” claimed the New York Post. Rolling Stone’s headline added to the hysteria, insisting, “Nebraska Teen Sent to Jail Over Illegal Abortion.” Other outlets used the sentencing story to raise the specter of police obtaining “period app tracking information, or other private data” to be used in the criminal prosecution of women who have abortions.
But the underlying facts behind the photo are far from simple. In the months leading up to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, law enforcement in Norfolk, Neb. (about 115 miles northwest of Omaha), received a tip that the body of a stillborn baby had recently been buried by two women in a local field.
As it is a crime in the state of Nebraska to knowingly bury human remains “in any place other than a regular place for burial and under a proper death certificate issued,” police pursued the tip, questioning Jessica Burgess and her then 17-year-old daughter, Celeste, who had been identified by the anonymous caller.
The pair told detectives that Celeste had miscarried and given birth in the shower, and then the two had buried the child’s body on farmland belonging to the family of a friend. When neither mother nor daughter could recall when the stillbirth occurred (a fact that needed to be verified since a death certificate is not required by Nebraska law prior to 20 weeks’ gestation), Celeste later confirmed the date to detectives by consulting her Facebook messages, prompting police to seek and obtain a search warrant to Facebook.
Those messages revealed that Celeste Burgess had, in fact, not miscarried after all and that her mother, Jessica, had procured abortion pills online for her minor daughter.
The messages also indicated that the mother and daughter had planned in advance that, after they got “the show on the road,” they would “burn the evidence.”
Part of their exchange, published in Vice, went as follows:
Celeste: “Are we starting it today?”
Jessica: “We can if u want the one will stop the hormones”
Jessica: “Ya the 1 pill stops the hormones an rehn [sic] u gotta wait 24 HR 2 take the other”
Celeste: “Remember we burn the evidence”
After placing the baby’s body in a garbage bag, Jessica and Celeste allegedly buried it, then exhumed the body and buried it a second time. The pair then attempted to incinerate the remains using apple wood briquettes, presumably to conceal the smell of burning human flesh. They then buried the baby’s body a third time, at which point the still-unknown person called the police and reported what had transpired.
At the time of Celeste’s decision to end her pregnancy (again, while Roe was still prevailing law), an enforceable Nebraska statute prohibited abortion providers from performing elective procedures after 20 weeks (five months) of pregnancy—although “self-managed” abortions were (and remain) legal. Celeste Burgess was 29.5 weeks pregnant.
In addition, the Food and Drug Administration had approved the abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol (sometimes referred to as “RU486” or “medical abortion”) to end pregnancies only through the 10th week of pregnancy.
There are sound reasons that the F.D.A. limits the use of this drug combination to 10 weeks. There are medical contraindications (that is, risks) for women, especially later in pregnancy. Women who have had C-sections, for example, should not take abortion pills due to the possibility of uterine rupture. Other outcomes, like infections caused by the retention of embryonic or fetal tissue (which can lead to sepsis), or ectopic pregnancy (which may lead to the rupture of the fallopian tube), can even be life-threatening. It is because of those potential complications that some states, including Nebraska, require an in-person physician exam and oversight of medication abortions in order to minimize possible adverse outcomes for pregnant women. Jessica Burgess jeopardized her daughter’s life and health by obtaining and administering abortion pills to her so late in pregnancy.
The women told police that Celeste gave birth to her child in the shower. Although they stated that the baby was stillborn, in a search warrant a detective noted that the final autopsy report “stated the cause of death was undetermined. The findings were consistent with the fetus being stillborn, but the placement of the fetus into a plastic bag raise the possibility of asphyxia due to suffocation.” Although it is presumed the fetus was stillborn, a live birth was not conclusively ruled out.
Mishandling or desecrating a corpse or skeletal remains is considered to be particularly egregious behavior, and incidents that involve it often make national headlines.
“The evidence present demonstrates an infant was born and died or miscarried (dead prior to delivery), was transported by this Defendant or at her encouragement to others, and thereafter buried said human remains at a place other than a regular place for burial and without proper death certificate issued or similar document evidencing cause of death,” the judge assigned to the case wrote. “Then the Defendant disinterred said body or encouraged others to do so at least one additional time and transported and reburied such human remains again at a place other than a regular place for burial and without proper death certificate issued.”
Depending on the jurisdiction, it can be illegal for an individual—even mistakenly—to bury a loved one in a setting outside of a cemetery, or for a funeral home to mishandle corpses. Charges can also be brought against an accused murderer for burning, or attempting to burn, their victim’s body, over and above homicide charges. Whatever the circumstances, laws prohibiting the abuse of human remains generally include stiff penalties.
Initially, the Burgesses were charged with a single felony each “for removing, concealing or abandoning a body,” and two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting to police. The felony abortion-related charges against the mother, Jessica Burgess, were not added until about a month later, after the content of the Facebook messages had been obtained.
In exchange for the misdemeanor charges (concealing a death and false reporting) being dropped, Celeste Burgess pleaded guilty to the single felony charge of removing or concealing a body. She was neither charged with nor sentenced for having an “illegal late-term abortion,” as some headlines claimed.
At sentencing, the judge noted that, “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.”
Jessica Burgess also entered into a plea bargain, admitting to two felonies and one misdemeanor—removing, concealing or abandoning a human body and performing an abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation, and false reporting. Other charges—performing an abortion while not being a physician and concealing the death of another person—were dropped. She is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 22.
Perhaps this time around, the nuanced facts will be reported more precisely. But with so much misinformation about the Burgess case already amplified by (usually) reputable news agencies, without correction, it is doubtful. In the year following Dobbs, accurate reporting on any story even remotely tangential to abortion is not to be expected, to the detriment of the people in whose hands state abortion law now rests.