Free & Just, an out-of-state abortion-rights group, is flying this message above Omaha highways Monday and Thursday this week. (Courtesy of Free & Just)
OMAHA — A national abortion-rights organization is taking flight over Omaha this week with messaging that Nebraska women are going to jail because of the state’s abortion ban.
In August, the out-of-state Free & Just organization put up five billboards through Lamar Outdoor Advertising — four were along I-80. Now, the group is scheduling flights with similar messaging over major Omaha highways Monday and Thursday this week during the morning (7-10 a.m.) and evening (4-7 p.m.) commutes.
Free & Just also flew a plane over Memorial Stadium on Saturday before the football game between the Huskers and Michigan Wolverines.
The Norfolk case
The organization cites in its messaging the recent prosecutions of a mother and daughter in Norfolk in an abortion-related case as evidence women are going to jail.
In that case, Celeste Burgess with the help of her mother, Jessica Burgess, obtained pills for an abortion in the spring of 2022. Celeste Burgess was 18 years old and 29 weeks pregnant at the time of the abortion. Abortions at the time were banned after 20 weeks gestation.
After taking the pills to induce an abortion, the mother and daughter burned and buried the aborted fetus.
Celeste Burgess pleaded guilty to concealing or abandoning a dead body and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and two years of probation for burning and burying the fetus. Jessica Burgess pleaded guilty in July to providing an illegal abortion, false reporting and tampering with human skeletal remains. She was sentenced Sept. 22 to two years in prison.
Legal experts in July told TIME that the Norfolk case of a self-managed abortion could be a signal of more abortion prosecutions. The Norfolk prosecutor said the matter was not about abortion rights but a “violation of the law.”
Most abortions in Nebraska are now prohibited after 12 weeks gestational age, or 10 weeks post-fertilization. Abortion rights supporters are weighing a possible ballot initiative to propose a related constitutional amendment for the 2024 ballot.
‘We took matters into our own hands’
Sandy Danek, Nebraska Right to Life executive director, told the Nebraska Examiner in September that the billboards were misleading because Nebraska law states women who receive an abortion will not be prosecuted and no woman has gone to jail for their abortion.
Danek had encouraged supporters to voice concern with Lamar Omaha, and, “within the hour,” she received notice the company would “be taking action against the messaging.”
Free & Just said in a Monday news release that the organization’s contract expired Aug. 31, so Right to Life’s involvement had no impact on the billboards coming down. However, when Free & Just attempted to contract again with Lamar Omaha, the company refused another wave of the same messaging.
Other vendors across the state also refused Free & Just’s requests.
Zoe Sheppard, spokesperson for Free & Just, said in a statement that “extreme anti-abortion groups” don’t want people to know women are going to jail “because of their dangerous and deeply unpopular abortion bans.”
“Lamar Advertising and other advertisers are doing a disservice to Nebraskans when they refuse to let them know the truth about the real-life impact of these bans, so we took matters into our own hands and took flight,” Sheppard said.
Right to Life opposes criminalization
On Monday, Danek said Free & Just is “again spreading misinformation” as Celeste Burgess was sentenced “not for having an abortion, but for failing to report the death of her 29-week gestational baby [and] improperly disposing of the body.” She did not address Jessica Burgess.
Danek pointed to a May 22 statement from leading anti-abortion groups (including Nebraska Right to Life) — the same day Gov. Jim Pillen approved the stricter abortion ban. The letter states, “unequivocally that we do not support any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to include such penalties in legislation.”
“Nebraska Right to Life will continue to work toward our goal that all mothers and their babies are supported, protected and cherished,” Danek said in a statement.
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