Celeste Burgess, a 17-year-old girl, and her mother, Jessica Burgess, now face felony charges in their home state of Nebraska after Celeste Burgess allegedly self-managed an abortion after Nebraska’s 20-week abortion ban. Celeste, who is being tried as an adult, faces a felony charge related to burying the fetal remains and two misdemeanor charges of “concealing the death of another person” and lying to police. Her mother, who allegedly helped her self-manage an abortion, faces five charges, including inducing an abortion and performing an abortion without a license.
Law enforcement received a tip that Celeste Burgess allegedly miscarried and then buried the fetus with her mother’s help. Law enforcement then served Facebook a search warrant, with which Facebook complied, to find private messages in which the mother and daughter discussed Celeste Burgess’s self-managed abortion.
It’s abhorrent, but unsurprising, that Facebook willingly turned over a user’s private messages to aid in the unjust prosecution of her self-managed abortion, but this is what that company is. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has proven, time and again, that he has absolutely no concern for the privacy and safety of the social networking site’s users or for society at large. Facebook has happily eroded the fabric of online privacy for years, allowing white supremacy and disinformation to flourish on the site, all while gobbling up billions in ad dollars.
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Now, the company is assisting in the criminalization of a teenager for having an abortion.
This may be one of the first cases of Facebook collaborating with the criminalization of abortion care, but it certainly won’t be the last. And it isn’t the first time people have experienced criminalization for their pregnancy outcomes, or that their digital footprint has been used to aid in that criminalization.
In 2001, Regina McKnight, a Black woman who experienced homelessness and struggled with drug addiction in South Carolina, was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 12 years in prison for experiencing a stillbirth. It was the first known conviction of its kind under Roe v. Wade.
By the time Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman and child of Indian immigrants, found herself pregnant in 2015, the digital communication landscape had radically transformed. Patel sent unencrypted text messages to a friend about her pregnancy and shared that she had searched for abortion pills online. She went to the hospital with heavy vaginal bleeding, and admitted that she had delivered a stillborn fetus earlier. She was terrified of her conservative parents’ reaction, and wanted to hide what had happened from them. Instead, law enforcement subpoenaed her text messages, and they helped convict her of feticide and child neglect.
Latice Fisher, a Black mother of three, delivered a stillborn baby in the backroom of her Starksville, Mississippi, home in 2017. Her husband called 911, and instead of being treated as a tragic accident, law enforcement regarded Fisher with suspicion. They searched Fisher’s internet search history on her phone, found a result for medication abortion, and therefore assumed she had intentionally attempted to terminate the pregnancy. She was charged with second-degree murder and faced up to 40 years in prison.
These all happened while Roe v. Wade was the law of the land. Women of color were targeted regardless of abortion’s legality. Now that Roe has fallen, the surveillance and criminalization that was once largely limited to women of color is extending exponentially, and Facebook is a fundamental part of it.
So much of our communication is digital, and it’s both unfair and unrealistic to assume that, when trying to find information or even reaching out to a friend for comfort and support, we simply avoid the internet altogether. For young people, especially, who came of age when social media was a given, it’s impossible. What’s imperative is that pregnant people seeking support and information know how to protect themselves from possible criminalization.
Facebook isn’t just assisting law enforcement in the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes; it also provides its highly-sensitive user data to anti-abortion organizations, known for their deceptive tactics and outright lies, that use it to target people online, even though it violates their own policies. Plus, Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta, have been removing posts aimed at helping people access abortion care information and services.
Never assume good intentions from a social media networking site. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, is clearly willing to support the criminalization of self-managed abortion. Your “private” messages on either of those sites aren’t private, as Celeste Burgess’s tragic case shows, and Meta can and will provide them to law enforcement. Don’t trust Twitter direct messages, either. If you have to communicate digitally about self-managed abortion, opt for an end-to-end encrypted messaging app, like Signal. And if you’re searching for information online, be sure to use a privacy-preserving search engine, like DuckDuckGo. You can also use a private, encrypted email service like Protonmail when discussing self-managed abortion, or a secondary phone number like a Google phone number account.
It can seem daunting and scary to navigate this new terrain, where every digital footprint you make can potentially come back to harm you, all for taking care of your own body and your own future. But know that you’re not alone, that there are ways to protect yourself. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has some helpful digital security and privacy tips for abortion care. And if you have questions about self-managed abortion, your rights and how to protect yourself, the Repro Legal Helpline is a great place to go.
Celeste Burgess and her mother both deserve to be free from criminalization for a pregnancy outcome, free to move on with their lives, free to live as full citizens of this country. Instead, they face felony charges for doing what people have done since the beginning of time — terminate a pregnancy — and they won’t be the last.
Mark Zuckerberg was lying when he said that Facebook will “keep people safe” after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Only you can do that.