An 18-year-old northeastern Nebraska woman was sentenced Thursday to 90 days in jail and two years of probation for burning and burying a fetus she aborted with her mother’s help in a case watched by advocates as a slew of states move to restrict abortion access.
Celeste Burgess, of Norfolk, was sentenced in Madison County after pleading guilty earlier this year to concealing or abandoning a dead body. Two other misdemeanor charges of false reporting and concealing the death of another person were dropped, in an agreement with prosecutors.
“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,” the judge’s order read.
Burgess and her mother, 42-year-old Jessica Burgess of Norfolk, are accused of working together to end the pregnancy. The abortion, well into her third trimester, violated Nebraska law at the time that banned abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Officials have said Jessica Burgess ordered abortion pills online, which she gave to her then-17-year-old daughter in the spring of 2022.
Jessica Burgess pleaded guilty earlier this month to providing an illegal abortion, false reporting and tampering with human skeletal remains. In exchange for her plea, charges of concealing the death of another person and abortion by someone other than a licensed physician were dismissed. She faces sentencing on Sept. 22.
Norfolk police detective opened an investigation into the abortion following a tip, according to an arrest affidavit. Police secured a search warrant to gain access to Facebook messages between the two, in which prosecutors say the women discussed terminating the pregnancy and destroying the evidence. Police then found the burned fetal remains buried in a field north of Norfolk.
In one of the Facebook messages, Jessica Burgess instructed her daughter on how to take the pills to end the pregnancy, according to court records. In another, Celeste Burgess wrote, “I will finally be able to wear jeans,” according to the documents.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s last year overturned Roe v. Wade, which for 50 years had established the constitutional right to abortion. Nebraska lawmakers who opposed Republican’s efforts to severely restrict abortion access in the legislative session that ended in June, repeatedly cited the Norfolk case, saying it shows state prosecutors would target women who seek abortions with criminal penalties.
Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature failed this year to enact a six-week ban on abortions, but later passed a 12-week ban after adding it as an amendment to another bill to limit gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Opponents say that violated a Nebraska constitutional requirement that legislative bills stick to a single subject.
The ACLU has sued to overturn the abortion ban and transgender care bill.