A Nebraska mother and her 18-year-old daughter are facing multiple charges in a case that involved police obtaining Facebook messages between the two that authorities allege show evidence of an illegal self-managed medication abortion, as well as a plan to hide the remains.
Norfolk police began investigating Celeste Burgess and her mother, Jessica Burgess, in late April following concerns Celeste had prematurely delivered a stillborn fetus, according to court documents. After the two were initially charged, law enforcement continued to investigate and obtained Facebook messages between Celeste and Jessica that appear to make reference to abortion pills and burning “the evidence,” according to a copy of the conversation — which is now being used in the case — contained in court filings. Police claim that after the body of the fetus was exhumed, it appeared to have “thermal injuries” indicating that it may have been burned after the pregnancy was terminated, court documents show.
The case began before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. But it highlights an issue digital privacy experts and some lawmakers have been raising alarms about in recent months: That law enforcement in some states could use people’s personal data to enforce laws prohibiting abortion, a practice which experts worry could increase following the Supreme Court’s ruling. Experts have warned that prosecutors could, for example, serve search warrants to tech companies requesting location data, search history or call logs to help corroborate whether someone had or aided in an abortion. The Burgess case shows how that has, in some cases, already been happening to enforce existing laws.
Celeste, who was 17 at the time of the alleged incident, initially told investigators that she had unexpectedly miscarried a stillborn fetus, and that she and her mother later buried the fetus, according to an affidavit in support of a search warrant. When interviewed by a police detective she “scrolled through her messages on her Facebook Messenger account” in an attempt to surface the date of her miscarriage, which police said led them to believe that there might be more messages with specifics about the case and to seek a search warrant, according to court documents.