Facebook criticised for handing over private messages in teen abortion case

·2-min read
 (Solen Feyissa / Unsplash)
(Solen Feyissa / Unsplash)

Facebook has been criticised for turning over private messages to police in an alleged teen abortion case in Nebraska.

A Norfolk city mother and daughter faced accusations of an at-home medical abortion and burying the foetus – with the aid of a 22-year-old man, also facing charges.

The then 17-year-old Celeste Burgess is on trial for three counts, including a felony. She is now being tried as an adult in the Madison County district court.

Jessica Burgess, who was accused of helping her daughter carry out the abortion, currently faces charges on five criminal counts and has pleaded not guilty.

According to court documents obtained by Vice, officers were granted access to messages on the social messenger app via a court order, which were used to then seize Miss Burgess’s phone and computer.

The court records alleged that the abortion took place in April, before the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade in June.

Although Nebraska’s abortion laws have not changed since the Supreme Court ruling, the medication used by Miss Burgess at 28 weeks failed to comply with the state’s 20-week post-fertilisation abortion ban.

The only allowances to this law are risk of death for the pregnant mother or "serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function”.

This marks one of the first cases where Facebook activity was used to incriminate the accused in a state where abortion access is restricted.

Parent company Meta said they wished to “set the record straight” on reports of their involvement in the post-Roe era, where reproductive rights have seen major setbacks.

“We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” the spokesperson said.

They added: “The warrants did not mention abortion at all. Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant.

“The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The orders have now been lifted.”

Shane Ferro, a Legal Aid digital forensics attorney, pressed for better data privacy policy in the face of the current rules of compliance.

She said: “Facebook is gonna comply with search warrants. It’s going to. There are two ways out of the situation: the government can legalise abortion or it can pass privacy laws to stop Facebook from saving and keeping private message data.”