Reflections on the Becky Bell Tragedy
For those unused to such material, reading an autopsy report is a grim and sobering experience. The intimacy of its details seem voyeuristic, even obscene, and the cold detachment of the form mockingly shrouds the reality which one can only imagine. In the chilly waiting room a weary couple huddles, spent with fear and weeping; fluorescent lights glint on tile and the long day drags toward unreal midnight. Down the hall, behind the swinging doors, a doctor has begun a long walk toward them. A beautiful young girl has just surrendered her last breath from shredded lungs.
Fourteen months later, the National Abortion Rights Action League had declared Rebecca the first teenager to die as a result of parental-consent abortion laws, and the Bells began telling the nation of their grief. Karen Bell explained, "Becky would expect us to do this to save others."
While the story seems straightforward, there are conflicting assertions that suggest all is not as clear as it appears. The family presented as clean-cut, All-American had to cope with a daughter on drugs, who became pregnant by her drug-supplying boyfriend bare weeks after completing a detox program. This daughter, supposedly afraid to go to her parents for abortion consent, had been immediately taken to Planned Parenthood by her parents during a previous pregnancy scare. News reports blithely contradict each other, one asserting that someone botched surgery on Becky and another that she took a home remedy. In the midst of this, we find a doctor telling Becky's parents hours before she died that it was unsure whether the baby--apparently still alive at this point--could be saved. Strong evidence is accumulating that Rebecca Bell had no abortion at all.
Yet we miss the point when we triumphantly make that assertion and consider the case closed. In the first place, we must never become so calloused that we forget that the death of a young girl from pneumonia is still a tragedy. The grief of her parents and friends is legitimate, even if we feel the incidents (and perhaps the people involved) are being misused or manipulated. Crowing over the sad results of the autopsy, nodding smugly at her drug problems, and justifying our attitude with, "But that's the way the other side acts!" all indicate that it's time for a hardness-of -heart check.
Secondly, the Rochelle Sharpe article indicates that NARAL was prepared last fall for the charge that no abortion had occurred; at that time they were saying that "either way" Becky died as a result of the law. The reasoning is based on her friend Heather Clark's assertion that Becky resisted getting medical help the week she was ill because she was afraid the doctor would tell her parents she was pregnant; only after the miscarriage had begun would she go to the hospital. NARAL would charge that an early, secret abortion would have left her free to handle the pneumonia promptly when it occurred; instead, they would say, the law required her to tell her parents something she preferred to conceal until death.
Our side says that parental involvement would have saved Becky's life; if the law had worked, and she had talked to her parents, they could have treated the pneumonia in time. Our opponents would say that this is proof that the law does not always work, and that when it backfires the results are disastrous.
To continue this convoluted argument, Heather Clark's information that Becky was undecided about aborting the baby until the end would suggest that, even without the parental consent law, Becky would not have had that early abortion. The wild card of possible drug use also makes Becky's ability to make health care decisions impossible to judge. There were also other options available to her besides illegal abortion or silence. She could have sought abortion via the judicial bypass provision (attorney provided and all fees waived in Indiana). Did Planned Parenthood offer to escort her through that process? Certainly, on our side, an advocate from a crisis pregnancy program could have gone with her to break the news to her parents and negotiate a plan of action. (Such pregnancy aid centers could also provide the housing, medical care, and other necessities to help Becky choose life--abortion was far from her only alternative.) With so many possible outcomes, this is one case where even hindsight is not 20/20.
Thirdly, let us not deceive ourselves that parental consent or notification laws will cause all pregnant teens to have their babies. Those of us who have worked at crisis pregnancy centers are well aware that it is sometimes the parents who are most eager for the abortion and overrule the teen's ambivalence. Still, there will be many cases where a teen who fears the worst discovers she has more loving support than she knew. There are also indications that parental notification laws decrease the rate of teen pregnancy in the first place (these dropped 32% in Minnesota, 18% in Massachusetts, and 9.7% in Missouri), as teens who know that their parents will have to find out one way or another take greater pains to avoid pregnancy.
Lastly, we cannot avoid the fact that even if Becky Bell does not fit the NARAL scenario, it's quite possible that another girl someday will. An exaggerated fear of Mom and Dad finding out can be powerful even in teens from happy families. The existence of such typical adolescent fear is not an argument against the law; for the teen's sake, the parents have the right and obligation to assist in such momentous health care situations. Most girls will do what they always have--take a deep breath and go ahead and tell their parents (again, advocacy programs can make this step much easier).
Yet there is no doubt that for some desperate and confused young women, illegal abortions will be the preferred choice.
Somehow we have been forced into the position of either denying such illegal abortions would occur, or denying that they would be dangerous, or implying that it is somehow an acceptable risk ("Only 39 women died of illegal abortions during the year before Roe v. Wade.") Yet the forgotten truth is that prolifers oppose illegal abortion just as strenuously as we oppose legal abortion. We can wear coat-hanger pins as legitimately as our opponents do, because illegal abortions kill babies just as dead as legal abortions do, and it is just as much a violation of women's lives and health.
The cure for an illegal act of violence is not to make it legal, but vigorously to oppose it in all forms. A strong public information campaign to teach women that illegal abortion is a dangerous and doubly life-threatening choice, that many life-giving alternatives are available, is a program that both sides should whole-heartedly support--if, in fact, both sides wish to discourage illegal abortions.
The more we learn about Becky Bell's life, the more complex it becomes, this short life of which the last year seemed so sad. We grieve with the Bells for their inexpressible loss, feeling as well their frustration in that last year of trying to be good parents, trying to do the right thing, in a difficult time.
As pro-lifers we perceive a further grief, too; one perhaps they are not able to see. As Becky lay dying on Friday afternoon, the doctor heard her baby's heartbeat and was afraid that it could not long continue. By the time of the autopsy Saturday morning, no fetal remains were found in the uterus. And sometime in between, we can only conclude, the fragile body of the Bell's four-month, nine-inch, twelve-ounce grandchild was consigned, unmourned, to the hospital incinerator.Frederica Mathewes-Green
Reprinted from SisterLife, Fall 1990