Using digital data

Using digital data, US police use it to prosecute abortions

Late in April, authorities in Nebraska were informed by a tip that Celeste Burgess, then 17, had given birth to a stillborn child and buried the body.

Officers quickly discovered that a friend and her mother, Jessica Burgess, had assisted her with transportation and burial. For failing to disclose a death and misleading reporting, the police issued tickets. However, they also accused Jessica of giving her teenage daughter an abortion in June.

After obtaining a warrant requiring Meta to turn up their Facebook Messenger interactions, police made the find. The unencrypted messages revealed that the two had spoken about getting and using abortion drugs.

Given how much time we spend online, warrants for digital data are common in police investigations. Although some businesses have done more to defend our privacy than others, technology giants have long complied to legitimate court requests for particular information requested by law authorities. Today, millions of people use apps like Signal and WhatsApp that encrypt their calls and messages so that no one — not even the service providers — can access them.

The Nebraska case is not the first or the last in which police have utilised digital evidence to pursue an abortion. Although digital data is rarely the primary source of evidence, prosecutors frequently use it in court to present evidence by displaying emails from online pharmacies, communications sent to acquaintances, and internet searches.

However, just like in the Burgess case, it’s frequently the women’s immediate family or friends, a doctor or nurse, or a nurse’s assistant that initially alerts the police.

The constitutional right to an abortion was abolished last summer when the US Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade. In doing so, it granted states the authority to control abortion or outright outlaw the operation, sparking a nationwide wave of abortion bans.

With few or no exceptions, at least 13 states now forbid abortion. After six weeks of pregnancy, a ban was recently imposed in Georgia. And in many areas, the legal battle over access to abortions is still going on.

Google declared it would remove location information for trips to abortion clinics and other medical institutions one week following the decision.

We should evaluate our privacy settings, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We were encouraged to use encrypted messaging apps by the Digital Defense Fund. Some advised us to remove our period monitoring applications.

It might seem strange to focus so much on digital privacy when discussing our reproductive rights. However, an examination of the prosecutions from 2011 to 2022 demonstrates the necessity of these discussions.

Police in Idaho accused Jennie McCormack of forcing an abortion on herself in May 2011. The 32-year-old was unable to pay for legal representation. She instead took medicines that she had ordered online. McCormack reportedly confided in a friend soon after the abortion, according to NPR.

The person who alerted the police was this friend’s sister. The unborn child was wrapped up on her back porch when police arrived to her house.

After taking a pack of five pills, McCormack acknowledged to the police that she had self-induced an abortion. She informed the court throughout the trial that the drug was “FDA-approved,” “purchased online,” and “recommended by a doctor.”

Following some time, an appeals court noticed that “McCormack’s sister allegedly found nonspecific abortion pills online, paid $200 for them, and had them shipped to McCormack in Idaho.”

McCormack could have spent up to five years in prison at the time. In the end, the case was dropped.

In March 2015, Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Indiana for feticide and neglect of a dependent.

After giving birth at home two years prior, Patel visited the hospital with haemorrhage. She initially disclosed to the medical staff that she had been between 10 and 10 weeks pregnant. However, she admitted to giving birth and claimed the child was stillborn when questioned by two doctors.

Patel said to the medical professionals that she had placed the body outside a Target store, not far from her family’s restaurant, in a dumpster after placing it in a paper bag.

The police were alerted by the hospital, and they conducted a search and found the bag. The newborn was “cold and lifeless,” but “was an otherwise typical, healthy-appearing baby,” according to a doctor who took part in the search.

According to court records, officers were given permission to search Patel’s phone. Her text messages were obtained by a police officer with “training in checking technological gadgets.”

The cops discovered after going over the data that she had spoken with “at least one friend” about getting an abortion. Patel also revealed that she had purchased and consumed abortion drugs in Hong Kong.

In July 2016, a court of appeals in Indiana overturned the feticide conviction.

According to the court, “police found a customer care email from” when inspecting Patel’s iPad. The email attested to Patel’s purchase of misoprostol and mifepristone for $72 in total. The same tablets were ordered by a detective, probably to make sure it was possible. Police discovered Patel had also accessed the “Abortion after Twelve Weeks” website.

The type of phone Patel used or how the police got access to her texts are not mentioned in the court records. She probably did not delete the texts or the email from the online pharmacy, though, as the messages were at least three months old.

The attorney general of Indiana made the decision not to challenge the judgement. Patel was given an additional 18-month term for child neglect in September 2016, which was less time than her initial sentence. The judge then ruled that Patel must be released right away.

Anne Bynum was detained by Arkansas police in April 2015 after giving birth to a stillborn child at home. She was accused of hiding a birth and mistreating a body. The state also accused Karen Collins, a friend of hers, of executing an abortion.

Bynum, who already had one child and was employed part-time, kept her pregnancy a secret from her parents. She started using drugs to start labour when it got harder to conceal her pregnancy.

Bynum said during a video interview that she gave birth to the child alone at home in the middle of the night. She was simply stunning. really lovely however, mouth and eyes were closed. unbroken stillness Bynum bundled up the leftovers before retiring to bed. She transported the remains to the emergency room the following day while sitting in the front passenger seat. She “gave birth yesterday night, but she didn’t make it,” according to Bynum. It was a stillbirth, as determined by medical personnel.

Days after being released from the hospital, Bynum was detained on her way home. She was handcuffed by the sheriff and put in the back of the squad car. Just two days of testimony and a short period of jury deliberation made up Bynum’s trial. She was given a six-year prison term by the judge. In December 2018, an appeals court overturned the conviction.

Who exactly called the cops is still a mystery. Bynum informed her friends, her attorneys, and her priest about her pregnancy and her intention to place the kid for adoption when it was born, the appeals court found. Bynum texted her attorney “who encouraged her to go visit a doctor” the morning after giving birth. Additionally, the attorney made a call to a funeral parlour, where “Bynum was told to take the foetal remains to the hospital.”

It is unknown if Bynum shared the texts or if police found them in any other way.

Mississippi accused Latice Fisher of murder in January 2018 for the 2017 death of her infant. The umbilical chord was still linked to the infant when paramedics discovered it in the toilet, according to The Washington Post. The hospital declared the infant dead.

Fisher first claimed she was unaware of her pregnancy but then acknowledged she had known for at least a month. She also acknowledged looking up how to have a miscarriage online.

According to reports, Fisher gave the cops her iPhone “voluntarily.” According to court documents, “memory and data, including but not limited to Fisher’s past internet activity, were then retrieved” from her phone. Investigators discovered that Fisher had looked for “purchase misoprostol abortion pill online,” “buy mifeprisone [sic] online,” and “buy abortion pills.” Additionally, “presumably” Fisher “bought misoprostol immediately after these searches.” The cops may have also checked her husband’s phone, according to another court filing.

Prosecutors used Fisher’s digital data to claim that she meant to abort her pregnancy even though there is no proof that she ever took the pills. The murder accusation was ultimately dropped.

Reporters discovered last year that Facebook and anti-abortion clinics gather private data on prospective patients. Additionally, according to The Markup, Hey Jane, an online seller of abortion pills, used a number of Internet trackers to monitor individuals as they browsed the internet up until the journalists contacted them about the practise.

A few months ago, ProPublica discovered that nine pharmacies that sell abortion drugs also share private information with Google and other third parties. All nine were suggested by Plan C, which details how to order abortion pills via mail. A request for comment from ProPublica went unanswered.

If you are white, have money, and the capacity to go to a state where abortion is legal, you will have a far easier experience than individuals from oppressed areas, publisher Jessica Valenti reminds us in Abortion, Every Day. Access to reproductive health care should be available to everyone. Protecting fundamental abortion rights will involve all of us, from lawmakers, software developers, and voters to doctors, nurses, and attorneys, if the last ten years are any clue.

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