Facebook gave police access to private messages to prosecute teen and her mother in abortion case
Jessica Burgess helped her then-minor daughter Celeste Burgess abort her fetus at 23 weeks, and later bury and try to burn the body
An 18-year-old and her mother are facing criminal charges following the teenage daughter’s abortion in April, after the police obtained incriminating Facebook messages through a search warrant, per court documents published by Motherboard.
Jessica Burgess, 41, reportedly helped her then-minor daughter Celeste Burgess abort her fetus at 23 weeks, and later bury and try to burn the body. (Abortion is illegal 20 weeks after an egg is fertilized in Nebraska following the Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe v. Wade earlier this year.)
What crimes are Celeste Burgess and Jessica Burgess charged with?
Celeste Burgess is charged with three felonies — including performing an abortion when over 20 weeks pregnant, performing the abortion without a licensed doctor and concealing a dead human body.
She is also charged with two misdemeanors, including concealing the death of another person and false reporting, per the report.
Meanwhile, Jessica Burgess was charged with performing or attempting abortion at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a nonlicensed doctor after the police obtained Facebook messages between the mother and daughter.
The mother and daughter enlisted the help of a 22-year-old man, who The Associated Press has chosen not to identify because he is only charged with a misdemeanor. He is charged with attempting to conceal the death of another person and has pleaded no contest, per CBS News.
What happened in the mother-daughter abortion case in Nebraska?
The Norfolk Police launched an investigation in late April. During the investigation, a detective was told that the pregnant 17-year-old had unexpectedly given birth to a stillborn. After waking her mother up, the two said that they put the body in a bag and drove north of the town.
The mother and daughter showed the detective the place of burial. In less than two months, the women were charged “with removing, concealing or abandoning a dead human body, a felony, and a pair of misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person; and false reporting,” per the Lincoln Journal Star.
The detective served a search warrant on Facebook after the two were charged. Messages revealed the mother stating that she had obtained abortion pills for her daughter and instructed her on how to take them.
After police were given access to the messages, the mother was then charged with performing or attempting abortion at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a nonlicensed doctor.
Facebook’s parent company Meta issued a statement titled, “Correcting the Record on Meta’s Involvement in Nebraska Case,” claiming they were never told anything about the involvement of an abortion.
Meta’s communications director Andy Stone took to Twitter to reiterate the company’s view: “The warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion.”
“Both of these warrants were originally accompanied by nondisclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing any information about them. The orders have now been lifted,” he added.
The issue of privacy
Private chat messages are only one type of digital evidence the police can use to prosecute illegal abortion cases. Other data sources include health records, Google search history, text messages and phone location data, according to The Verge.
Although tech companies, like Facebook, tout expanding end-to-end encryption, these companies “also need to stop collecting and retaining so much intimate information about us in the first place,” Evan Greer, the director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, told The Guardian.
“Every tech company will tell you the same thing: they comply with law enforcement requests in the jurisdictions where they operate,” he said. “The only way for companies like Facebook to meaningfully protect people is for them to ensure that they do not have access to user data or communications when a law enforcement agency comes knocking.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the mother and daughter burned the body. Court documents suggest that they tried to but didn’t. This story has been updated for accuracy.