After Meta hands over DMs, mom pleads guilty to giving daughter abortion pills
Facebook messages, obtained via valid warrant, help make case against women
A Nebraska mother pleaded guilty on Friday to giving her 17-year-old daughter pills for an abortion last year and to helping her dispose of the 29-week-old fetus.
Jessica Burgess, 42, in a plea agreement admitted providing an abortion to her daughter Celeste after 20 weeks of pregnancy, false reporting, and tampering with human remains, according to the Associated Press. Two of the charges are felonies, one is a misdemeanor.
Burgess last August pleaded not guilty to five criminal charges. As part of the plea agreement, the State of Nebraska dropped two of them: concealing the death of a person, and abortion by a person who is not a licensed physician. She is scheduled to be sentenced in September.
The Burgess case began in April 2022 when a Norfolk Police detective began investigating "concerns" – a tip – that the daughter had a stillbirth and had enlisted the help of her mother to dispose of the fetus.
Norfolk Police detective Ben McBride in an affidavit [PDF] describes obtaining the medical records of the women, interviewing them, and obtaining a search warrant to gain access to the women's Meta/Facebook account data, based on knowledge of a relevant Facebook Messenger discussion.
The messages obtained discuss taking the pills and plans to burn the fetus.
Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last August, after the charges were first filed, Meta issued a statement saying that it had responded to valid legal warrants related to the "alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant."
"The warrants did not mention abortion at all," the company said.
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Since the US Supreme Court last June overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving the lawfulness of pregnancy termination to state legislatures, technology experts have expressed concern that social media and digital communication data will be used against those pursuing abortions.
In May, Celeste Burgess, now 18, who initially faced three charges as an adult rather than a minor, pleaded guilty to one count of concealing a dead human body, according to KTIV in Madison County, Nebraska. She is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.
A man who assisted in the burial pleaded no contest last summer and received probation.
Since 2010, abortion after 20 weeks has been illegal in Nebraska; in May, Governor Jim Pillen signed a bill banning abortions after 12 weeks that, starting October 1, 2023 also outlaws puberty blockers for minors and gender-altering surgeries for minors.
The ACLU is suing to block the bill's provisions.
Via social media app Bluesky, Meredith Whittaker, president of the Signal Foundation, framed the case as a demonstration of the value of encryption.
"Meta turned over their DMs, used as evidence to convict them on felony charges for accessing criminalized healthcare," she said. "Meta had the data so had to hand it over. End to end encryption keeps people safe." ®