A Nebraska woman has pleaded guilty to helping her daughter have a medication abortion last year. The legal proceeding against her hinged on Facebook’s decision to provide authorities with private messages between that mother and her 17-year-old daughter discussing the latter’s plans to terminate her pregnancy.
The case is a telling example of how Big Tech can be tapped to help prosecute abortion in the United States, where the Supreme Court in 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision that legalized abortion. Experts have warned that location data, search histories, emails, text messages and even period- and ovulation-tracking apps can now be used in the prosecution of people who seek an abortion and those who assist them, and this case shows they are right to worry.
Meta, which owns Facebook, could have challenged the legal order to hand over private messages to police, as it and other tech companies sometimes do on various grounds, but it didn’t. The private messages on Facebook Messenger show how the two discussed plans to terminate the pregnancy and destroy the evidence, including instructions from the mother on how to use the pills to end the pregnancy. Those messages directly led law enforcement to acquire a search warrant.
Police raided the family’s home and seized six smartphones and seven laptops, with data like internet history and emails totaling 24 gigabytes.
Meta did not respond in time to TechCrunch, but last year, the company issued a statement which reads in part:
Nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion. 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.
TechCrunch has repeatedly asked for more information on what police specifically shared with Meta, and what their suspicions were. Police had initially begun investigating “concerns that a juvenile female…had given birth prematurely supposedly to a stillborn child.”
As we wrote in 2022: “A 17-year-old girl and a hastily hidden stillborn seem like something that might deserve closer inspection than a blanket grant to all that kid’s data.” Particularly given the contentious conversation in the U.S. at the time around the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Meta has been loath to take a stance on abortion, but as Irish philosopher Edmund Burke apparently didn’t say, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The passive stance from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is reminiscent of his position against turning Facebook into an “arbiter of truth” in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Zuckerberg at the time acknowledged the importance of not censoring political speech, even when it bordered on misinformation that could impact the democratic process.
Under her plea agreement, the mother, Jessica Burgess, admitted to providing an illegal abortion pill to her daughter after 20 weeks’ gestation, which was at the time illegal. In May, Republican Nebraska governor Jim Pillen signed a bill that bans abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy, which went into effect immediately.
Burgess also pleaded guilty to false reporting and tampering with human skeletal remains. According to court documents, the mother helped her daughter burn and bury the aborted fetus, which authorities later exhumed from a field north of Norfolk. The court dismissed charges of concealing the death of another person and abortion by someone other than a licensed doctor.
Madison County attorney Joe Smith said this case was the first time he charged anyone with illegally performing an abortion after 20 weeks.
Jessica Burgess is scheduled for sentencing September 22, and she’s looking at two Class IV felony charges and one Class I misdemeanor. In Nebraska, Class IV felonies typically involve a sentencing of up to two years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. Class I misdemeanors are sentenced with up to one year in prison, a $10,000, or both.
Celeste Burgess, now 18, was charged last year as an adult and pleaded guilty in May to removing, concealing or abandoning a dead body. Her sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 20, and she faces up to two years in prison.
Last summer a man was sentenced to probation after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor for helping the women bury the fetus on his parents’ land.