A Norfolk, Nebraska, mother and daughter are facing criminal charges in connection with an alleged self-managed abortion earlier this year. It’s a scenario that abortion rights activists have long feared: those seeking care and those who assist them are prosecuted based on their social media activity or other personal data: Police obtained Facebook messages in which the two discussed using abortion pills to end the teen’s pregnancy.
The investigation into Jessica and Celeste Burgess started in late April, months before Roe v. Wade was overturned. According to a search warrant affidavit, a Norfolk police detective received information that Celeste, then 17, had a stillbirth and that her 41-year-old mother assisted her in secretly burying the fetus. According to court documents, the detective then obtained Celeste’s medical records — it’s unclear how he did so — and determined that she was around 28 weeks pregnant at the time.
According to the affidavit, the teen told police in an interview that she had a stillborn baby in the shower during the early hours of April 22, woke up her mother, and then drove north of town with her mother to bury the body. Tanner Barnhill, a 22-year-old man named in court records, told police that the Burgesses attempted to burn the body before burying it. The stillbirth was later confirmed by an autopsy.
According to court records, the Burgesses were each charged on June 1 with a felony count of removing, concealing, or abandoning a dead human body, as well as two misdemeanor counts of concealing another person’s death and false reporting. However, the detective served a search warrant on Facebook and obtained their chat history a week later. He discovered messages indicating that Jessica had obtained abortion pills for Celeste and given her instructions on how to use them. In an affidavit, the detective wrote, “C. Burgess talks about how she can’t wait to get the ‘thing’ out of her body and reaffirms with J. Burgess that they will burn the evidence afterward.”
Then, on June 14, a friend of Celeste contacted the Madison County Attorney’s Office, claiming she saw the teen “take the first of two pills meant to cause a miscarriage.” She went on to say that the Burgesses had several computers in their home.
As a result of the search warrant, Jessica Burgess was charged with two additional felonies in July: performing or attempting an abortion at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion while not a licensed doctor. Celeste, who is now 18 years old, is being tried as an adult. Both the mother and the daughter have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are scheduled to appear in court on September 2 and August 29, respectively. Barnhill pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to conceal another person’s death and will be sentenced in late August.
While abortion is strictly prohibited in Nebraska, and termination after 20 weeks is illegal unless the pregnant woman’s life is in danger, self-managed abortion is not explicitly prohibited. Jessica Burgess purchased Pregnot — a kit containing mifepristone and misoprostol — from “an online source,” according to court documents. Medication abortion is only permitted in the United States up to ten weeks of pregnancy, but research has shown that with the proper dosage of a mifepristone-misoprostol combination, or misoprostol alone, it can be used to end pregnancies well into the second trimester.
When someone is turned in to the authorities and a crime is suspected, police have almost complete authority to request personal information from tech companies. Even without a court order, law enforcement can easily purchase information from data brokers ranging from internet search queries to location information, putting abortion seekers and anyone who assists them in danger.
According to If/When/How, the United States has a long history of prosecuting pregnant people, even when Roe was in place: between 2000 and 2020, 61 people were arrested or criminally investigated for allegedly self-managing their abortions. More than one-third of the cases examined in the report resulted in a guilty plea or verdict.