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Nebraska Teen & Her Mother Are Being Prosecuted for Alleged Abortion, Thanks To the Help of Facebook

Pro-choice activists protest during a rally

Police have charged a Nebraska teenager and her mother with a number of misdemeanors and felonies after investigating the teen’s alleged self-medicated abortion. The bulk of police’s evidence seems to come from Facebook messages between the then-17-year-old and her mother, which Facebook’s parent company, Meta, provided in response to a court order.

This is terrifying from top to bottom. Facebook is the most commonly used messaging app in the U.S., those conversations are not encrypted by default, and Meta’s terms of service make it clear that “messages, photos, videos, timeline posts, and location information” are all available for law enforcement to access with a search warrant showing probable cause that a crime has been committed—including the “crime” of performing an abortion.

What makes this especially scary is that nearly all of the anti-abortion state laws being passed or otherwise taking effect make it clear that the goal (for now) is not to prosecute the pregnant people getting abortions, but rather to go after abortion providers. But it hasn’t been clear how that applies to cases of self-managed medication abortion. In those instances, the pregnant person is both the patient and the provider, so the question has been raised as to whether they would be subject to prosecution under these state laws.

In Nebraska, abortion is legal until 20 weeks post-fertilization (22 weeks gestation, from the date of a person’s last period). That’s the same as it was before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, although state legislators and Nebraska’s Republican governor are trying to reduce that to only 12 weeks.

According to court documents obtained by Motherboard, the teen was 28 weeks pregnant (some reports say 24 weeks) when she and her mother exchanged these Facebook messages appearing to discuss the use of a mix of mifepristone and misoprostol, which is a safe method of ending pregnancies in the first trimester:

Celeste: “Are we starting it today?” 

Jessica:  “We can if u want the one will stop the hormones”

Celeste: “Ok”

Jessica: “Ya the 1 pill stops the hormones an rehn [sic] u gotta wait 24 HR 2 take the other”

Celeste: “Ok”

Celeste: “Remember we burn the evidence”

The two reportedly told police, who were investigating the suspected abortion, that the teen, Celeste, had “given birth prematurely supposedly to a stillborn child.” Celeste was charged with a number of misdemeanors and one felony: removing/concealing/abandoning dead human body—a charge that raises extremely fraught questions of fetal “personhood” if police are categorizing a stillborn fetus as a “dead human body.” She will be tried as an adult.

Her mother, Jessica, was also charged with additional felonies: performing/attempting abortion at > 20 weeks and performing abortion by non-licensed doctor. (A third person—a 22-year-old-man allegedly enlisted to help bury the stillborn fetus—was also charged with helping conceal the death of a person, a misdemeanor.) So while the pregnant person herself is still not being charged with performing her own self-medicated abortion, law enforcement seems to be getting as close as they possibly can.

Meta told Motherboard in a statement that the search warrant provided by law enforcement didn’t mention abortion. It reportedly just said police were “investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried,” but that’s not any better. Requiring women and pregnant people to report miscarriages to law enforcement is extremely cruel, and if all it takes to get a search warrant is report of a miscarriage or stillborn birth, that’s exposes a terrifying lack of privacy.

(image: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.