Trying To Make Becky Bell's Death Count -- Parents Fight Parental Consent Law

INDIANAPOLIS - Before 17-year-old Becky Bell died from an illegal abortion, her parents led an unconcerned, apolitical existence in an Indianapolis suburb.

Bill Bell, a sales representative for an office-equipment company, says he voted for Reagan and Bush because everyone else did. Karen Bell had been a stay-at-home mom since her first child, Billy, was born. The couple had been sweethearts since Pike High School, where they were king and queen of the prom. Life was good.

The abortion-rights debate had become strident by September 1988, but abortion was never mentioned in the Bell home. "Things like abortions didn't happen in our family," says Bill Bell, now 49.

They didn't know that Indiana law requires girls younger than 18 to get written consent from at least one parent - or permission from a judge - before an abortion can be performed.

If they had known about the parental-consent law, they would have supported it. "What parent wouldn't want to know if their daughter was in trouble?" asks Karen Bell, 48.

But the law couldn't force Becky to tell her parents she was pregnant.

Rather than shame herself and disappoint her mom and dad, the scared and desperate girl apparently sought an abortion somewhere other than a legal clinic. The coroner has said he believes Becky or someone else induced an abortion with an unsterilized instrument - something like a knitting needle or a piece of wire.


Six days later, feverish and hemorrhaging, Becky Bell died of pneumonia. The autopsy report said it was caused by bacterial infection introduced by an unsterile abortion.

Bill and Karen Bell are anything but unconcerned and apolitical these days.

Their campaign against parental-consent laws has taken them to legislative hearings, college campuses and pro-choice rallies in 37 states. They have told their story to "60 Minutes," Seventeen magazine and Rolling Stone.

The death of Becky Bell has been used to sway opinion in television commercials, full-page newspaper ads and films produced by Planned Parenthood. Becky's story will be told in an upcoming HBO cable network movie.

Bill and Karen Bell recently stood on the steps of the Indiana Statehouse at a National Abortion Rights Action League rally. They vowed to continue their fight despite last month's Supreme Court ruling that Pennsylvania's parental-consent law was constitutional, as well as laws requiring women to wait at least 24 hours after counseling to have an abortion.

"These little girls are political footballs because they don't vote," Bill Bell said. "A politician can be pro-choice and support a woman's right but at the same time throw a bone to the other side and deny a young woman."


In the beginning, the Bells were ashamed and silent about what had caused their daughter's death. Now, they are trying to make Becky's death count for something.

"Nobody can shut us up," Karen says.

Not the right-to-life people who console her on the death of her grandchild, while not acknowledging the death of her daughter.

Not the people who tell the parents to their faces that Becky got what she deserved.

And not the people who Bill swears loosened the lug nuts on a front wheel of his car while he was speaking out about abortion rights in New Albany, Ind.

It started on a Saturday night in September 1988. Becky had just turned 17 and hadn't had her driver's license for long. She told her mom she was going to a party. A friend needed her help, she said, and she might have to stay most of the night.

"I felt funny about it," Karen says. "She was nervous-acting."

But the mother let her go. She trusted her daughter. Becky always told her when something was wrong. She had come to her parents, after all, and told them she'd been smoking marijuana for a couple of months.

Bill and Karen had reacted to that confession by admitting her to an inpatient hospital drug-rehabilitation program for two months. Becky asked to be let out. Her parents told her she had to stay. "The right-to-life people say she died of a drug overdose by choking on her vomit," Karen says. "Becky died drug-free."

Possibly mindful of her parents' reactions the last time she had messed up, Becky tried to straighten things out herself when she learned she was pregnant. Her boyfriend said he didn't want to see her anymore. A Planned Parenthood counselor told her she would need a parent's permission to get an abortion in Indiana.

A letter from Becky to her parents that was found after her death says she didn't want to disappoint them. "I wish I could tell you everything, but I can't," she wrote. "I have to deal with it myself. I can do it, and I love you."

Becky's parents don't know where she went that Saturday. But she came home about 1 in the morning, shaken and upset. The next day, she fainted at her part-time job at Cub Foods. Just the flu, she told her mom and dad.

By the following Wednesday, Becky was burning up with fever. She seemed scared when her mother said she was going to take her to the doctor. She refused.

Then on Friday, Becky told her mother that her period had started. She seemed unnaturally happy about it. "I'll go to the doctor now," she said.

In reality, Becky had started to hemorrhage from the botched abortion. Seven hours after she entered the hospital on Sept. 16, Becky Bell died of pneumonia without telling anyone what had happened.

"No, not MY girl!" Karen Bell cried in denial when a doctor informed her that the cause of death was an illegal abortion.

At first, they weren't going to tell anyone the real cause. Karen didn't want anyone criticizing them. It was pneumonia, they told friends and family.

But on the day of the funeral, their minister knelt in front of them and told them, "I know how Becky died. Why don't you tell the truth so you can hold your head up in the community?"

With their blessing, the minister told the truth during the funeral. Then brother Billy, two years older, walked to the casket. He patted Becky on the head and closed the lid. "Nobody can hurt my sister again," he told the mourners.

"For over a year, Bill and I wanted to die," Karen says. "He couldn't work, and I just cried and wanted to lie down with Becky. We almost ignored (their son) Billy. Finally, Billy said, `Dad just smokes and looks at Becky's pictures, you aren't Mom anymore, and my sister's buried a block away. I feel like I've lost my whole family, and I'm scared.' "

About that time, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings wrote them a letter saying that Becky was the first young woman known to have died partly as a result of parental-consent laws.


"What's parental consent?" Karen asked her husband. Bill didn't know. They didn't accept Jennings' request for an interview. But as they began thinking about what Indiana's parental-consent law had done to their daughter, they began talking to the press. They became aligned with pro-choice groups.

"Our whole mission is to stop it from happening to someone else," Bill says. "We can have all the laws we want to have. But Indiana's law, which is very strictly enforced, didn't force Becky to come to us."

"I've thought a lot about what I'd have done if Becky had told me she was pregnant," Karen says. "I would have been mad, upset that she'd ruined her life, worried what the neighbors would think. I wanted her to be a good girl. I taught her right from wrong.

"I never would have hit her, though. I would have taken her through the options: Do you want the baby? Do you want to get married? Do you want to put it up for adoption? Right down the list to abortion. But it would have been her decision. And Dad and I would have stood by her. If only she'd have come to us."