Abortion Snitching Is Already Sending People to Jail

In places where abortion is banned, women must rely even more on social and familial networks. But with greater reliance, comes greater risk. 

Police on bicycles monitor protesters as they march and chant in Atlanta on July 23, 2022, in opposition to Georgia’s six-week abortion ban, H.B. 481. (Megan Varner / Getty Images)

Updated Sept. 23 at 8:15 a.m. PT: Jessica Burgess, 42, was sentenced to two years in prison on Friday after helping her daughter Celeste Burgess acquire abortion pills and end her pregnancy in April 2022. The official charges were for false reporting and removal of skeletal remains. Jessica Burgess’ daughter, Celeste—who was released from prison on Sept. 11—was in the courtroom.

Last month, Celeste Burgess was sentenced to 90 days in prison after taking abortion pills when she was 17. Celeste was charged with removing, concealing or abandoning a human body; concealing the death of another; and false reporting, after burying her miscarriage with the help of her mother, Jessica.

The story of Celeste and her mother—who helped her get the pills and will be sentenced next month—went national. Most media attention centered on local police’s access to Facebook messages between the two, and for good reason: Companies like Meta amass intimate information—including but not limited to messageslocation databrowsing patterns, phone numbers and online searches—that may be accessed by law enforcement. This case was seen as a harbinger of intimate privacy violations to come.

But this case also exemplifies a disturbing phenomenon in the genesis of abortion prosecutions: friends and community members reporting on each other.

The investigation into Celeste and Jessica began with a tip in April of 2022. Nebraska detective Ben McBride was told that the mother and daughter secretly buried a stillborn fetus. According to his affidavit in support of a search warrant, “Both of the Burgess[es] were telling others they needed to dig the child’s body up and then burn it.”

The source of the tip is unclear, but it led to a search of Celeste’s medical records, an autopsy of fetal remains and a series of interviews. McBride filed for a warrant to seize Celeste and Jessica’s Facebook messages, based on information he learned in one of the interviews, but the messages disclosed little: Jessica told Celeste that she received pills, one of which will “stop the hormones,” and they agreed to “burn the evidence.” The messages did not reveal that the pills Jessica ordered were Pregnot, a two-pill regimen of mifepristone and misoprostol. So how did prosecutors know?

Tip number two: Celeste’s friend and fellow high-schooler, Sumer (last name withheld for privacy), independently reached out to Madison County prosecutors to report that she was present when Celeste took the first of the two abortion pills. Sumer also told prosecutors that the Burgess family owned several computers the police eventually seized (one of which Jessica used to order the pills). Celeste’s purportedly private, self-managed abortion—conducted outside of the healthcare system—was suddenly public because a close friend betrayed her trust. 

As reproductive healthcare becomes more and more restricted after the fall of Roe, abortion access is increasingly a matter of one’s own resources and social networks. Laws expressly prohibiting abortions are predicted to push more people towards later term and self-managed abortion—which is precisely what happened in the Burgess case. 

Celeste’s purportedly private, self-managed abortion—conducted outside of the healthcare system—was suddenly public because a close friend betrayed her trust. 

Between 2006 and 2020, 1,300 women were prosecuted on charges associated with endangering a fetus. Most cases involved suspected drug use during pregnancy, but some arose out of a refusal to follow medical advice or attempted abortion. Now that states can target intentional termination directly, and prioritize fetal personhood, these charges are predicted to rise in frequency.  

At first glance, attempts to obtain abortions while skirting arrest entail avoiding healthcare professionals and social workers—any agent of the state or individual required to report violations of the law. A report released by If/When/How that surveyed 61 criminal investigations associated with self-managed abortion between 2000 and 2020, revealed that healthcare providers were the most common source of reports to law enforcement (45 percent of reporters).  

But, as the Burgess case demonstrates, a person who performs a later, self-managed medication abortion without any complications that would force interaction with agents of the state can still be vulnerable to prosecution.

In fact, the If/When/How report also found that, of the surveyed criminal cases, 26 percent were reported to police by friends, relatives and intimate partners. Eighteen percent were brought to law enforcement by “other” means, which includes anonymous reports (presumably made by individuals who fall into the ‘friends, relatives and partners’ category, among others).  

While the majority of investigations in the If/When/How report focused on individuals who self-managed abortions—half of whom exclusively used abortion pills—one-quarter centered on those who helped others self-manage abortions (like Celeste’s mom, Jessica Burgess). Of those prosecuted for self-managing their abortions, most did so during their second or third trimesters.

Celeste Burgess, too, was in her second trimester. She was 23 weeks pregnant at the time of her self-managed abortion (although she thought it was earlier). These abortions later in pregnancy often involve a fetus, and fetal remains.

Most instances of clinically supervised medication abortion happen within the first nine weeks of pregnancy. Abortion pills are approved for use up to 10 weeks’ gestation, but the protocol is considered safe and effective beyond that point. The increasing inaccessibility of abortion care, however, delays the procurement and supervised use of the pills, leading to later, self-managed and/or unsupervised abortions. And while these abortions are overwhelmingly safe, they can pose a greater risk of criminalization—even though they happen in private. 

Stories of abortion snitching are not new. 

  • Before Dobbs, we learned of Gabriela Flores, a 22-year-old immigrant mother of three whose sister sent her abortion pills from Mexico; her neighbor told police that Gabriela had “given birth” and disposed of the “infant.” She spent seven months in jail. 
  • Jennie McCormack asked her friend for help after taking abortion pills, and that friend’s sister told the police. 
  • Michelle Frances Roberts’ boyfriend’s mother reported a “missing baby” (Michelle’s miscarried fetus) to law enforcement.

These three women were likely in their mid- to late-second trimester of pregnancy; notably, Flores and McCormack terminated their pregnancies later because they experienced delays in obtaining abortion pills. 

These profound violations of trust will have negative consequences not only for the mental and emotional health and legal status of those betrayed, but also for democratic norms and values.

The statistics and stories are troubling given that, in environments where abortion is illegal, women and others with reproductive capacity appear even more reliant on social and familial networks. And now, with greater reliance, comes greater risk. 

Once a breach of trust occurs, a prosecution comes together quickly, with state attorneys often pushing the law beyond its bounds to penalize abortion seekers and abettors. They punish abortion seekers like Celeste with crimes related to the disposal of human remains, and punish abettors like her mother with a cocktail of offenses, including facilitating illegal abortion. As people like Celeste Burgess try to stay safe, necessarily confiding in and relying on those around them, the Sumers in their lives—the friends they trust enough to be present for their abortions—will report them to law enforcement.

These profound violations of trust will have negative consequences not only for the mental and emotional health and legal status of those betrayed, but also for democratic norms and values. The normalized and encouraged snitching on one’s neighbors and friends evokes memories of the Salem Witch Trials, the McCarthy Era and, perhaps most accurately, historically charted descents into totalitarianism. In places like Nazi Germany, for instance, the widespread practice of reporting on one’s community members served to legitimize the state’s power.

Importantly, none of the community-members-turned-abortion-snitches mentioned above were incentivized by an S.B. 8-style law. Just like their German counterparts, these private citizens needed no financial motive for reporting the intimate activity of their friends and neighbors to police—with full knowledge of the consequences.

As sociologist Patrick Bergemann explains in his Judge Thy Neighbor, the largely voluntary denunciations during the Third Reich degraded interpersonal relationships and strengthened the connection between individual citizens and the regime, resulting in “an orientation of society away from cooperation and trust and towards hierarchy and obedience.” Widespread informing poisoned the community ties that once existed, making both resistance and self-protection far more difficult and hazardous in an increasingly authoritarian state.

In a post-Dobbs America, while the police remain dangerous to anyone involved with abortions, one may reasonably anticipate confidantes and neighbors to emerge as a common entry point for police involvement on the road to a conviction—especially as more individuals begin self-managing abortions, relying on close contacts and avoiding healthcare systems and professionals they may not trust.

The ramifications of the breakdown of community ties in the face of highly repressive laws extend beyond narrowed options for reproductive healthcare; as was the case in Nazi Germany, the profound reshaping of interpersonal relationships undermined intimacy and strengthened the oppressive state.

Abortion snitching mirrors historically successful means of social control, and as criminalization continues to increase across the 50 states, it is reasonable to expect environments of heightened fear and reinforced state power.

If you recently had an abortion, are seeking an abortion, or need legal support for your pregnancy outcome contact the Repro Legal Helpline at (844) 868-2812 for confidential legal information and advice. If you provide or support abortion care and have questions about your legal rights or have been threatened with legal action related to abortion, contact the Abortion Defense Network.

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Morgan Carmen is in her third year at Harvard Law School, where she is the president of the Alliance for Reproductive Justice. She is an intern with Ms. Studios and is based in Cambridge, Mass. Find her on Twitter @morgancarmen_.