A Norfolk, Nebraska, woman pleaded guilty to helping her daughter have a medication abortion last year. The charges came after Facebook, by court order, provided police with evidence that bolstered a Madison County prosecutor’s case against her.
Last year, it emerged that the two were charged after police acquired Facebook messages that proved the two had acquired abortion medication intended for first-trimester abortions. In a June 2022 affidavit (via Jezebel), the officer investigating Celeste Burgess, the daughter who was charged along with her mother, Jessica Burgess, said he’d served Meta a warrant seeking their messages, and the company quickly complied.
The charges include having an abortion after 20 weeks, false reporting, and tampering with human skeletal remains. According to last year’s affidavit, Burgess was about 23 weeks along in her pregnancy, which is also later than the Nebraska 20-week post-fertilization abortion ban in place at the time. Nebraska has since implemented a 12-week abortion ban.
The case underscores a crucial privacy drawback of Facebook Messenger, which to this day doesn’t default to end-to-end encryption (E2EE) like other messengers, such as Signal, Meta’s own WhatsApp, or Apple’s iMessage do. Because it’s not the default, average people not being intentional about their messaging may not realize they can even turn it on.
E2EE is important because, when it’s properly implemented, the company offering it has no key to unlock the messages — the only person who can access the messages is the sender and the receiver, and in some cases, you can even set the messages to be deleted.
In June, when the investigating officer’s affidavit was filed, the Supreme Court was on the precipice of striking down Roe v. Wade — which it did only nine days afterward on June 24th, 2022. Afterward, existing, unenforceable abortion bans around the country immediately took effect, while many states got to work passing new restrictions, and women’s rights advocacy groups warned of digital privacy risks illuminated in cases just like the Burgess’.
Meta itself has been reticent to take a stand on abortion. Although then-Meta executive Sheryl Sandberg posted in May 2022 in support of abortion rights, the next day, the company restricted internal discussion of the issue to one-on-one private chats with “trusted colleagues” or up to five “like-minded people” in listening sessions, though the company allowed its employees to share their thoughts on their personal Meta social apps.
The company also downweighted abortion content on its platforms well before the Supreme Court struck down the Roe v. Wade decision that had previously served as a barrier against strong abortion laws at the state level.
The mother and daughter are scheduled for sentencing on September 22nd and July 20th, respectively. Her daughter pleaded guilty in May. The Madison County prosecutor, attorney Joe Smith, said this was his first charge of illegal abortion after 20 weeks since the previous ban was instituted in 2010.
Update July 12th, 2023 10:27PM ET: Updated to credit the linked affidavit PDF to Jezebel, where it was published previously.