Nebraska teen’s abortion prosecution highlights forced birth & privacy issues

An abortion rights protester at a rally in South Orange on Friday June 24, 2022.

A northeast Nebraska teenager suspected of acquiring abortion pills and terminating a pregnancy after a state deadline is due back in court on September 26 in a case in which police used private Facebook messages as evidence.

Celeste Burgess, 18, is accused of taking pills to abort her 29-week-old fetus, setting the corpse on fire, and then disposing of the remains in a field north of town when she was 17 years old.

Burgess is facing criminal charges and is being tried as an adult—even though the alleged abortion would have occurred before Roe was overturned and while she was 17 years old—because in Nebraska, abortions are banned after 20 weeks.

Less than a year ago, abortion was perfectly legal in the United States and the right to choose was reserved for women while undue government interference was forbidden.

Now, 26 states have prohibited procedures to terminate a pregnancy or placed unnecessary obstacles that force women to give birth.

Abortion is banned in some states without exceptions even for rape or incest, but the federal government is pressing to ensure that doctors may terminate a pregnancy when a woman’s life is endangered but that issue is likely heading to court.

States that currently force women to give birth are Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, Utah, and North Carolina.

Indiana, Arizona, Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan, Montana, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming are on track to join the forced birth states with either pending legislation or laws that are under review by the courts.

Facebook handed over private messages to Nebraska police after being served with a warrant during an investigation into whether she had a self-managed abortion.

Unlike messaging platforms like Signal or WhatsApp, which use end-to-end encryption and couldn’t give chat history to police even with a warrant, Facebook messages are not automatically encrypted.

The 18-year-old is free on a recognizance bond after she appeared in district court in Madison, Nebraska for a pretrial hearing on August 29.

Her appearance lasted less than two minutes, as Burgess’ attorney asked for and was granted a continuance.

“There were some motions filed…I filed some motions. The defense may file some motions. Just the ones I filed had to do with getting preliminary determinations on the admissibility of certain evidence,” said Madison County Attorney Joseph Smith.

Court documents show those motions including pictures of the baby taken by law enforcement, the admissibility of Celeste Burgess’ statements, and medical expert testimony.

Celeste Burgess was allegedly aided by her mother, Jessica, 41, and Tanner Barnhill, 22. All are from Norfolk.

Barnhill has special needs and appeared in court last week.

He is not the father of the child and he says he was just helping a friend. He was sentenced to nine months of probation.

“Well, everybody that was involved, if it goes to trial of course…witnesses are witnesses,” said Smith.

Investigators discovered several private exchanges on social media between Celeste and Jessica Burgess in the days leading up to the abortion, where they allegedly discussed the pills.

“We filed so many subpoenas and stuff for records on telephones…social media…PayPal. Years ago I didn’t have that. You know 30 years ago…20 years ago. It was all towers and stuff we could only get certain data. People share stuff on social media that they wouldn’t share otherwise,” said Smith.

Smith says the particulars of this case make it unique.

“I don’t know that this is the type of situation that arises very often,” said Smith.

Celeste Burgess is free on a recognizance bond. She is due back in court on September 26.

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