Delete Facebook Trends After Chat Messages Led to Abortion Charges

Social media users were urged to delete their Facebook accounts after it was reported that the company handed over messages that led to charges related to an illegal abortion.

Jessica Burgess, 41, was charged after allegedly obtaining and giving abortion pills to her then 17-year-old daughter Celeste Burgess, who was about 23 weeks pregnant, in Nebraska earlier this year.

Those charges came after detectives uncovered Facebook messages where the pair discussed using medication to induce an abortion and burn the fetus afterward.

In early June, the mother and daughter were only charged with removing, concealing or abandoning a body—a felony—and two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting.

But in July, after investigators obtained and reviewed the private Facebook messages between the mother and daughter, Jessica Burgess was also charged with performing or attempting an abortion at more than 20 weeks of pregnancy and performing an abortion as a non-licensed physician. Abortion is illegal 20 weeks after an egg is fertilized under a Nebraska law that was enacted before Roe was struck down.

Both Jessica and Celeste Burgess pleaded not guilty to the charges at a hearing last week, the Norfolk Daily News reported. Their attorneys could not immediately be contacted for comment.

Facebook's parent company Meta said the warrants seeking access to the private messages had not mentioned abortion.

But the case raised fresh concerns about how data collected by companies could help prosecutors seeking to enforce abortion restrictions since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in late June, stripping away federal protections for the procedure until fetus viability, which occurs at roughly 24 weeks.

The hashtag #DeleteFacebook was trending on Twitter as reports about the case circulated, with furious users urging women to delete their accounts.

"Every woman should delete Facebook right now," Olivia Julianna, a 19-year-old Texas-based activist, wrote alongside the hashtag.

Sean Wiggs wrote that Facebook "has shown they will compromise your privacy at any chance they get."

Emily Crockett said the case was "just a preview of what's to come," noting that it occurred before Roe fell.

"If you don't #DeleteFacebook, at least make sure you never talk about anything over Facebook Messenger that you wouldn't want turned over to the police," Crockett wrote.

Fight for the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group, tweeted: "Sure #DeleteFacebook if you want. But let's be real, many people won't. So instead, let's demand that Facebook implement default end-to-end encryption on all DMs.

"That's the only way for Facebook and other online platforms to really protect users in a post-Roe world."

In a statement, Meta said 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.

"Both of these warrants were originally accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing any information about them. The orders have now been lifted."

Meta has been contacted for further comment.

Police in Norfolk began investigating in April after receiving a tip that Celeste Burgess had miscarried and the she and her mother had buried the fetus without reporting it, according to an affidavit from Detective Ben McBride of the Norfolk Police Investigations Unit.

The detective obtained medical records that determined she had been more than 23 weeks pregnant at the time.

The mother and daughter told him that Celeste Burgess had unexpectedly given birth in the shower in the early hours of April 22.

Facebook and Messenger logos
In this photo illustration, the logo of the Messenger and Facebook applications are displayed on the screen of an Apple iPhone on April 06, 2018 in Paris. Chesnot/Getty Images

They said they put the fetus in a bag and buried it several miles north of Norfolk with the help of a 22-year-old man. The man pleaded no contest to helping bury the fetus on rural land that his parents own. He told police that the mother and daughter had attempted to burn the fetus before burying it.

Authorities found "thermal wounds" on the fetus when they exhumed it, the detective wrote.

Police then received a tip in June from a woman who said she was Celeste Burgess's friend and saw her take the first abortion pill in April, McBride wrote.

McBride then applied and got a warrant to seize phones and laptops and compelled Facebook to turn over messages.

He found messages from Jessica Burgess indicating that she has obtained abortion pills for her daughter and giving her instructions on how to take them. She also wrote about a plan "to burn the evidence afterward."

Celeste Burgess "talks about how she can't wait to get the 'thing' out of her body," the detective wrote. "I will finally be able to wear jeans," she says in another message.

In July, the abortion-related felonies were added to the charges against Jessica Burgess.

Madison County Attorney Joseph Smith told the Lincoln Journal Star that he has never before filed those charges in his 32 years as the county's prosecutor. He has been contacted for further comment.