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Friend of Nebraska Teen Charged for Self-Managed Abortion Tipped Off Prosecutors

Yes, Facebook turned over private messages between the teen and her mom, but individual people moved the case along.

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A Nebraska mother and her teenage daughter are facing felony charges for allegedly ending the girl’s pregnancy with abortion pills in April. Norfolk Police received a tip that month that Jessica Burgess, 41, allegedly ordered abortion pills for her then 17-year-old daughter, Celeste. The girl had a stillbirth and they allegedly buried the fetus with the help of a 22-year-old named Tanner Barnhill.

According to court documents obtained by Jezebel, a friend of Celeste’s contacted the Madison County Attorney’s Office and said she was there when Celeste took the first of two medications intended to cause a miscarriage. She also told the prosecutor’s office that the Burgesses owned several computers.

From the affidavit for a search warrant to obtain the computers:

On 06-14-22 [name redacted] contacted the County Attorney’s Office with information regarding this case. [Redacted] advised she is a friend to C. Burgess and was present when C. Burgess took the first of the 2 pills meant to cause a miscarriage. [Redacted] also stated there were a number of computers within the residence of [Burgess address redacted], Norfolk, Madison County, Nebraska.

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Jezebel found the girl’s Facebook profile and confirmed she is friends with both of Celeste’s parents, Jessica (Kerr) Burgess and David Burgess.

Facebook handed over Jessica and Celeste’s private messages to Norfolk Police, which led them to obtaining multiple laptops, cell phones, and web histories. (Motherboard first published the search warrants, but Jezebel is sharing new details.) But the investigation only began after someone tipped off police, and it escalated after the teen’s friend gave additional information to prosecutors.

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The case shows that while abortion-related internet activity is certainly risky in a post-Roe world, the chain of criminalization usually starts with a human being. As my colleague Kylie Cheung reported Tuesday, “In the majority of cases in which pregnant people faced criminal charges for self-managed abortion in the past two decades, they were reported to law enforcement following in-person interactions—by doctors and acquaintances.”

That data comes from the legal advocacy organization If/When/How, which analyzed 61 investigations of self-managed abortions between 2000 and 2020. The group found that 39 percent of cases were reported by health care providers, 6 percent by social workers, and while 26 percent were reported to police by acquaintances of the pregnant person, including friends, parents, and intimate partners.

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“What we’ve really confirmed through our research is that the biggest threat to the privacy of abortion seekers is other people,” Laura Huss, a senior researcher at If/When/How and a co-author of the report, told Jezebel.