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Group uses billboards and banners to expose Nebraska’s anti-abortion laws

Over the last week, if Nebraskans on their commute looked up, they might have glimpsed a striking banner flying through the sky – a red, black and white flag that read: “Extremist groups don’t want you to know women are going to jail under Nebraska’s abortion ban.”

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The banner is the work of Free & Just, an abortion rights organization that, over the past few months, has launched a campaign that publicizes the case of Jessica Burgess and her teenage daughter Celeste Burgess, who were jailed last year after police accused Jessica of giving abortion pills to Celeste. Celeste Burgess was sentenced to 90 days in jail, while Jessica Burgess has been sentenced to two years in prison.

Over the summer, Free & Just put up highway billboards that read: “Women are going to jail under Nebraska’s abortion ban.” These billboards have sparked a skirmish between Free & Just and Nebraska Right to Life, whose executive director, Sandy Danek, said Free & Just’s message is misleading and led an effort to urge a vendor to take the billboards down.

“When you’re looking at that, not knowing this case, you think a woman who had an abortion went to jail because she simply sought an abortion,” Danek said. “It’s confusing and it’s misinformation.”

According to prosecutors, Celeste and Jessica Burgess induced Celeste’s abortion before the overturning of Roe v Wade, when abortion was illegal past 20 weeks of pregnancy in Nebraska. (It is now illegal after 12 weeks.) Celeste Burgess pleaded guilty to charges of concealing or abandoning a dead body, while Jessica Burgess pleaded guilty to charges of false reporting and providing an abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, as well as concealing, removing or abandoning a dead human body.

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“The young woman who had the abortion performed simply went to jail because she improperly handled the body, didn’t report the death and lied to authorities,” Danek said of Celeste Burgess. Women who get abortions, she said, are victims. “We do not support any measures seeking to criminalize or punish a woman.”

After one vendor’s contract for those billboards expired in late August, Free & Just said in a press release that other vendors refused to run the copy on the billboards.

It first flew the banners over a college football game on Saturday, the group said in the press release. The banners also flew on Monday and Thursday.

Free & Just did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.

Inducing your own abortion – a practice known as self-managing – is technically legal in all but a handful of US states. (Abortion bans, including Nebraska’s, tend to target abortion providers, not patients.) However, experts have long warned that, no matter what the law says, a prosecutor who wants to penalize someone for self-managing an abortion will find a way to do it. Between 2000 and 2020, law enforcement in 26 states investigated or arrested at least 61 people for allegedly ending their pregnancy or helping someone else do so, according to a report by the reproductive justice group If/When/How.

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Anti-abortion groups have long used highway billboards to trumpet their cause. Danek said her group is now at work on a billboard that will appear in the Omaha area. A version of the billboard sent to the Guardian features a woman clutching an infant. It reads: “All mothers and babies deserve to be supported, protected, cherished.”

But over the last few months, abortion rights organizations have flipped that script with their own billboards. The group Shout Your Abortion recently put up billboards along I-155, a highway that travels through five states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee – that have banned most abortions.

“Abortion is OK,” the billboards read. “You are loved.”