Healthcare Reproductive Justice women's rights Zane McNeill

19-Year-Old Girl Sent to Jail for Self-Managed Abortion in Nebraska

Far right lawmakers have been ramping up the criminalization of abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Pro-abortion rights protesters in Foley Square following the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Part of 2022 abortion protests in the United States. (Legoktm / Wikimedia Commons)

By Zane McNeill / Truthout

19-year-old woman in Nebraska has been sentenced to 90 days in jail and two years of probation for ending a pregnancy with abortion pills. Although she was 17 when she ended her pregnancy in April 2022, she was charged as an adult and faced up to two years in prison.

Self-managed abortion is only explicitly illegal in Nevada and South Carolina, not in Nebraska. But prosecutors have criminalized people for abortions, miscarriages and stillbirths by charging them under other statutes. At the time of the teen’s self-managed abortion, the procedure was banned in the state after 20 weeks post-fertilization. The teen was 28 weeks pregnant at the time of the self-induced abortion.

Since then, Nebraska has passed a 12-week ban that is currently in effect but facing legal challenges. However, these laws only apply to licensed abortion providers in the state, not people managing their own abortions.

The teen’s mother is awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled for September 22, on separate charges. She is facing two felony charges — including one for performing an abortion beyond 20 weeks — and one misdemeanor.

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“[The prosecutors] tried to paint a portrait of this mother and daughter in a negative light and to deprive them of their humanity and to erase the fact that we’re talking about a teenager who was not ready to have a child,” Emma Roth, staff attorney with Pregnancy Justice, told Jezebel.

The investigation into the teen — and the mother who ordered abortion pills for her daughter — began in April 2022 after someone tipped off police about a stillbirth and disposal of the fetus. Police sent a warrant to Meta, the company that owns Facebook, requesting messages between the mother and the daughter about ending the teen’s pregnancy. Meta complied with the request and provided the police with the messages.

Abortion advocates have raised the alarm about tech companies potentially collaborating with police to criminalize people for having abortions since the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

“It’s abhorrent, but unsurprising, that Facebook willingly turned over a user’s private messages to aid in the unjust prosecution of her self-managed abortion…” abortion advocate Lauren Rankin wrote for Truthout in August 2022. “This may be one of the first cases of Facebook collaborating with the criminalization of abortion care, but it certainly won’t be the last.” 

While the mother and daughter were charged before Roe was overturned, abortion advocates are concerned that the criminalization of pregnant people will only increase. From 2000 to 2020, If/When/How, a reproductive justice organization, identified 61 cases in which people were criminally investigated or arrested for allegedly ending their own pregnancy or helping someone else do so. 

Since the reversal of Roe, at least 24 states have banned or severely restricted abortion care or are expected to do so in the future. At least 19 states have criminalized abortion; in many of these states, performing an illegal abortion constitutes a felony. This legislative session, Republicans in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arkansas have also introduced laws that would allow prosecutors to charge people who have abortions with homicide, which ispunishable by the death penalty in those states.

The effects of abortion criminalization have been most felt in marginalized communities, reproductive rights advocates have noted. 

“The criminalization of abortion care is another way in which our criminal legal system is being wielded to control the bodies and futures of people who are disproportionately Black, Brown and low-income,” Lauren Johnson, director of the ACLU’s Abortion Criminal Defense Initiative, wrote in February.

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Zane McNeill

Zane McNeill is a breaking news writing fellow at Truthout and has written for In These TimesWaging NonviolenceNational Geographic, the Progressive and Sentient Media. He has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Central European University and is currently enrolled in law school at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. They can be found on Twitter: @zane_crittheory.

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