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Teen charged for illegal abortion after Facebook surrenders chat messages; pro-life researcher reacts

abortion pill
An unindentified woman displays an abortion pill packet after taking one of the pills as abortion rights campaign group ROSA, Reproductive Rights Against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity distribute abortion pills from a touring bus on May 31, 2018 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. |

A pro-life legal researcher does not believe a case in which Facebook had to turn over private chats between a mother and daughter to Nebraska police as part of an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the girl’s abortion could become common in a post-Roe world. 

The investigation was launched in April before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, overturning Roe v. Wade and returning the abortion issue to the states. According to court documents, Nebraska police obtained the Facebook chats after serving the social media website with a warrant. 

Jessica Burgess, 41, and her daughter, Celeste, 18, were charged in July “with allegedly removing, concealing, or abandoning a dead human body,” concealing the death of another person and false reporting. 

The mother was additionally charged with “performing or attempting an abortion on a pregnancy at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor.”

Jessica Burgess reportedly ordered abortion pills in March to abort her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. According to a sworn affidavit from Detective Ben McBride of the Norfolk Police Investigations Unit, a woman claiming to be a friend of the daughter said she saw the teenager take the first abortion pill in April. 

Abortion is illegal in Nebraska past 20 weeks post-fertilization. Celeste Burgess claimed she had a miscarriage at 23 weeks gestation. 

McBride applied for a warrant in June, seizing six smartphones and seven laptops and ordering Facebook to turn over chats between the mother and daughter. The chats reportedly show Jessica Burgess referring to “What i ordered last month” and instructing her to take two pills 24 hours apart. 

Pro-choice activist Olivia Julianna tweeted Tuesday that women should delete their Facebook accounts in response to the case, causing the hashtag #DeleteFacebook to trend. 

“A lot of people are missing the point here. Regardless of what is in those messages, they thought she had an abortion,” she wrote. 

“They subpoenaed Facebook — who cooperated without any pushback — to find out more information. This precedent is dangerous. This will put people at risk.” 

Daniel Gump, a legal researcher and author of Criminal Abortion Laws Before the Fourteenth Amendment: A Timeline and Visual Review of Jurisprudence and Historical Milestones, argued in a Wednesday statement to The Christian Post that abortion proponents are misrepresenting the facts surrounding the case. 

“This is a case of someone illegally procuring a post-viability induced abortion for a minor, and three individuals then attempting to destroy and hide evidence that included human remains,” he wrote. 

“The details of the crimes eventually leaked out, and that led to an investigation that included interviews and warrants to seize electronic devices and communication records on social media. Justice is being served.” 

As The Norfolk Daily News reported in July, the Madison County Attorney’s Office alleges that the mother and daughter planned to bury the baby’s remains in a rural location. The teen and her mother allegedly buried the body three different times and also attempted to burn the body after the second exhumation. 

Another individual, Tanner Barnhill, pleaded no contest to concealing a death for lending the Burgesses transportation to the burial sites. Barnhill is expected to be sentenced later this month. He faces up to 3 months in jail, a $500 fine, or both.

Jessica Burgess’ pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Sept. 2, and she faces up to 8 years of imprisonment. Her daughter, whose pre-trial hearing is set for later this month, faces up to four years of imprisonment. 

Both mother and daughter have pled not guilty to the charges. 

Facebook's parent company, Meta, said in a statement shared with media outlets that "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."

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