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Facebook defends sharing private messages in criminal abortion case

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, admitted that it provided access to private messages related to the prosecution of an illegal abortion but said it did so without explicit reference to abortions from law enforcement.

The social platform pushed back in a Tuesday update over a Nebraska case involving the prosecution of a mother and daughter over an illegal abortion. While the case involved references to Facebook private messages between the pair discussing abortion options, the platform claims the data request came before the overturning of Roe v. Wade and that the warrant was not specifically on the subject of abortion. The company is defending its actions in a charged atmosphere as Democratic legislators and abortion rights activists push for technology companies to withhold abortion-related data from law enforcement in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision.

“We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” Meta said in a post correcting the previous reporting on the subject. “The warrants did not mention abortion at all. Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant.”

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Police found records via a warrant showing that the mother, 41-year-old Jessica Burgess, had suggested obtaining abortion pills to her 17-year-old daughter over Facebook messages and offered instructions on how to do so, according to court documents.

Burgess pleaded not guilty to five criminal charges, according to the Norfolk Journal-Star. Her daughter also pleaded not guilty to three charges. A 22-year-old man accused of helping the pair bury the fetus pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.

The investigation into the abortion began in April, months before the Supreme Court decision, after a Norfolk police detective chased a tip that the daughter had miscarried and that she and her mother had buried the fetus, according to a search warrant affidavit. The daughter had been more than 23 weeks pregnant at the time and was expected to deliver in July.

The pair told the detective that the daughter had given birth to the stillborn baby in the shower late at night, according to court records. The daughter woke the mother, who put the infant’s corpse into a bag and stowed it in their van. The pair later left town and buried the body with the assistance of the 22-year-old man.

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Big Tech’s sharing of abortion-related data has been a concern for abortion rights activists since the overturning of Roe. Several privacy experts and abortion rights advocates have argued that technology companies must take additional measures to ensure that law enforcement cannot access abortion-related data in states with abortion bans. While most companies have not adopted policies barring sharing of said data, Google said it would delete location history data for those who may have visited an abortion clinic.

Lawmakers have also increased pressure on technology companies. Senate Democrats asked the Federal Trade Commission in a June 24 letter to investigate Google and Apple for their roles in gathering and sharing abortion clinic location data. A Democratic congresswoman also introduced legislation that would protect women’s private data concerning abortion and period tracking apps.

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