by Mary Lou Greenberg
On June 25, 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can require teenaged women to either notify one or both parents or get permission from a judge before having an abortion. Thirtythree states previously had laws in place that required parental notification or consent prior to a young woman getting an abortion, but most of these had not been enforced or had been declared unconstitutional by lower courts. Indiana is one state where such a law was enforced even before the Supreme Court ruling. And Indiana is where, on September 16, 1988, 17-year-old Rebecca Suzanne Bell died from an illegal abortion.
When Becky went to Planned Parenthood in Indianapolis, she learned that she couldn’t get an abortion without the consent of at least one parent or a waiver from a judge. But she couldn’t bear to tell her mother or father. And word on the street was that it was useless to go before the judge who heard these cases because he was antichoice and hardly ever granted waivers. Evidently unable to find a believable excuse to stay away from her home long enough to go to neighboring Kentucky where parental involvement was not required, Becky Bell, as thousands of women and girls before her, was forced to seek an illegal abortion.
Several days after Becky returned from a party feeling “sick,” her parents took her to a hospital. The next day she died. She never told her parents or anyone else what happened. What is known is that Becky developed pneumonia which was brought on by a massive infection, the result of an illegal, possibly self-induced, abortion.
Now her parents, Bill and Karen Bell, are traveling around the country, speaking out in the media, appearing before legislative hearings, talking to whomever will listen about the killing nature of parental consent and notification laws. Bill and Karen come out of a very mainstream background – he was a high school sports star and she was a homecoming queen – and their’s was the epitome of the traditional American family. Now, in their outspokenness, they have been thrust to the forefront of one of the most critical battles of the day, the right of a woman of any age, race, nationality or social and economic status to control her own reproduction.
I interviewed the Bells for On The Issues in Washington, D.C. where they had gone to speak with the Fund for the Feminist Majority about participating in a campaign against parental notification and consent laws.
Bill Bell (BB): This has changed our lives, not just in the obvious way, but it’s brought an awareness to us of not only restrictive parental consent and notification laws, but also other laws that impact on women and young women in this country. We’ve gained the capacity to recognize the injustices being done. Before the loss of Becky, we were rural Indiana, trying to chase a dollar, raise our kids-
Karen Bell (KB): Planning vacations. I told Bill, what bothers me most, I was home every day, every night, my kids were there every day, every night. Bill traveled a lot, but we were so close that he’d call every night. Where were our heads when Becky was dying right in front of our eyes? We didn’t even see it.
We knew there was a sadness in her eyes, but we were just so wrapped up in trying to keep the house going, paying the bills, just everyday things. But as close as we were to Billy [their son] and Becky, we didn’t see. Except looking back, the sadness in her eyes. Every day we’d say “I love you.” That’s the last thing that was said to Becky, and she said, “I love you, Mom and Dad.”
And a lot of people say, well you must not have talked to your kids and showed them a lot of affection. We did every day.
BB: Still do. Billy Bell, 21 years old, will not hesitate to say, “I love you, Mom” or “I love you, Dad” in front of his friends. That’s just the way we are. Very demonstrative in terms of how we feel about each other. You know, when we go on vacation, not only do we go but we take Karen’s mother and father and her sister and her two kids. We’ve done that for years. We’re a close knit, loving family.
KB: Every year we went to Siesta Key where my mom and dad took me as a little girl. The last vacation we had was when I noticed Becky kind of slumping and sad-eyed, and I said, “Becky, what do you have to be sad about? You’ve got everything in the world. You’re going to be 17…” And now I look back, she didn’t really want to go on vacation, and I know why. She was going to go to Kentucky.
BB: It’s not only the impact on our family, but on our neighborhood, our friends. Becky touched a lot of people’s lives. She had a tremendous capacity to want to help. Her ability to want to take care of young people, her nieces and nephews, little babies, and at the same time to be equally comfortable in leaning down to an elderly person in a wheelchair and give them that same kind of attention and love, we know to be very unique.
KB: She visited the old people that nobody would go see…They miss her.
BB: She had a personality that everyone appreciated. It was like when you take out a key member of the community, and I don’t mean to make it more than it is, but our little neighborhood is very close-knit. If it had been someone else’s young child it would have had the same impact.
On the Issues (OTI): What did she like to do?
KB: Animals were her big love. She brought home strays. She volunteered at the Humane Society. She loved horses.
BB: She was very interested in causes. A lot of young people today don’t have a cause to commit themselves to. And she liked to write. One poem is engraved on her tombstone, on the back of the angel.
KB: She’d write you a love poem, and then when she was sad she’d write sad poems and stick them under the door…. Becky never got a whipping. Our boy did all the time.
BB: All you had to do with her was raise your voice. She knew. This was a very tender person. We’re not trying to make Becky out to be some saint, but she had an incredible ability to love. The last thing she was really starting to get into was the plight of the American Indian. One of her first papers for school at the beginning of the year was about this.
KB: She was doing this Indian research, and this old man down at the end of the street gave her a beautiful Indian poem, called “The Red Man’s Poem,” about life and death, which she loved. And I put that with her in the casket. And Billy gave her a box with some of her favorite things. He misses her so much. Then all the kids put in crystals and teddy bears and little things they loved.
BB: Not only did she touch a lot of people, she just brightened the room. I’ve seen the impact she had not just on other kids but on their parents. Becky’s funeral was massive. We didn’t know why, and we didn’t know how, but we knew Becky died of an illegal abortion. And when the minister said this at the funeral, that was the first anybody knew of this. And it knocked people back off their feet. It affected not only the young women and young men, but the parents.
It’d be less than honest if we didn’t tell you it was a struggle to get through the first 12-13 months. We had no purpose, no ambition, no motivation. Sure, we love our son, love each other, but nothing excited us, motivated us.
Speaking out against these laws is the only thing that’s motivated me since we lost Becky. We testified in Michigan in early December. CBS News followed us down from there the next day and we did a piece for the morning news show. It kind of evolved.
We tried to piece together what happened. And we started to really trace Becky’s footsteps and see what obstacles she ran into. We talked to the people at Planned Parenthood, we talked to her friends, we found notes in her purse with phone numbers of abortion clinics in Kentucky. It was through all that that we found out what we know today. All along, we’ve felt right and proper about speaking out; we know our speaking out can make a difference. It already has. We really appreciate what you and other people in this movement are doing. We need to get to the other Bill Bells and Karen Bells out in rural America, who are unaware of the punishing laws about parental consent. But also unaware of a lot of other injustices that are going on.. .Injustices for women as a whole, many areas which we weren’t cognizant of.
KB: I feel like my whole family’s been raped. I feel like I’ve been ripped open. I feel like I’ve had my head in a hole for years. But I was happy. I would rather be what I was, and really not know anything, and live my life that was perfect, with no problems. I didn’t even know what the word abortion was. I knew what an abortion was, but I didn’t have any reason to be talking about abortion because I’d had my children, whom I loved, and married the man I loved. My little girl and son both wanted big families. Why would I talk about abortion? My mom had us, and my grandma had 12. And we never talked about abortion, prochoice; we talked about fun things, family things. And nothing would ever happen to us because I was home and took care of my kids. I lived right. I trusted our President, who I’m very disappointed with. And I always went out and voted and was the perfect person. And now – the word “rape.” That’s what I feel has happened to me. I don’t feel like I used to at all, and I never will again.
If I could help other children, and I did, then why couldn’t I help my own? She told me everything. But I know why she didn’t tell me because she thought I wouldn’t want her anymore. The boy threw her over. He didn’t want her. He said get the hell out of my life. And she did, forever…I feel betrayed by the people I trusted. I trusted that boy with my daughter. He was a friend of my son. She dated him for six or seven months. His mother and father are upstanding citizens in the community.
OTI: What was the response of others in your family; what do they think about what you’re doing?
KB: Total support. Mom’s almost an activist now. She’s out canvassing all the neighbors, talking to people. She said, “y¡u know, I’ve never felt like this before, but I’m so mad that I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to talk to these oldsters.” And she said it’s amazing, “just give me 15 minutes with them…”
BB: Karen’s grandmother is 97, and she could die any day now, but she’s been very helpful, very supportive.
KB: And she said, “Why didn’t somebody help me when I had all those babies?” She said, “I love them, but why didn’t somebody help me?” She said “All we did, Grandpa and I just went to bed, and there was nothing.” And, she said, there was another baby every two years, every two years, every two years. “Why, why didn’t somebody help me?” Grandma said, “Karen, I don’t have any money, and I’ve loved you all my life and I’ve loved my Becky.” She lives in California, and she said, “When I die I’m going to have my body sent back home so that Becky’s not alone in that cemetery.” She said “I want on my gravestone, ‘the matriarch of the family,’ and I want to be with my great granddaughter.”
BB: She is very supportive, as is Karen’s family. My family is very conservative, and I love them dearly, but they don’t talk about it…They really don’t believe in abortion. We really don’t believe in it either, but how can you deny others if that’s what they want?
OTI: You’ve said that Becky didn’t tell you because she was afraid she would “disappoint” you.
KB: I know what I would feel like. I would not tell my mom and dad. I’d rather be dead than disappoint them because I love them so much. Becky and I had talked about sex. Just a little. And I said, “Becky, if you find yourself where you ever want to have sex, please take care of yourself, with pills or something. Please protect yourself.” She said, “Mommy, you’re embarrassing me.” I said, “Okay, but remember. Just take care of yourself.”
Everybody called her an angel. Everybody looked up to her. All the neighbor kids were told, “Be like Becky Bell.” That would have been the shock. If she’d had to come and say, “Mom, I’ve had sex with this guy, we’ve been going together and I’m in love. I’m pregnant, and now I want an abortion.” I think we would have flipped out at the time; I know I would have. I would have said, “You’ve ruined your reputation and your chance for anything, Becky, and I told you to take care of yourself.” And I would have been mad and so would her dad. And she knew it…But we would have done anything in the world, anything she would have wanted. Abortion, adoption, keep the baby. We wouldn’t have been real happy with some of the decisions, but it would have been her choice, her decision. And not what Mommy and Daddy wanted.
BB: There are pressures of all kinds on young people, young men as well as young women. It’s fair to say that Becky didn’t want to tarnish her image. She was embarrassed. Hell, I’m 47 years old; I still don’t want to disappoint my mother. What person would? The responsibility we have to friends and family – some of these people looking at this issue overlook the pressure when you’re in a family that has 15-16 grandchildren and not a one of them has had a real problem, and you don’t want to be the one to screw up. I think the pressures she faced there are equally the same if she was raised with an alcoholic father who beat her mother and feared she’d get beaten if she went home, or any other sort of dysfunctional home. We unconsciously put pressures on Becky. She was a good girl, she was a joy. Her friend Heather cited the conversation she had; Becky said she did not want to disappoint her mom and dad. I know my daughter’s thinking. We have it in her handwriting, a note written shortly before she died, that we didn’t find until about a year after she died.
KB: She said, “I don’t want to lose you and Dad, too,” after the boy threw her over…
When we got married, Bill said, “I want you to be home and raise our children.” But that’s what I wanted to do, my choice. I had worked for years and had Billy, and I wanted to stay home and be free. That’s what I wanted in life, to be a mom and stay home. I didn’t want to go to work every day.
BB: Our mutual feeling was the two kids came first; they were the most important priority in our life, and we didn’t want someone else raising them…Success has never meant money to me, but I’ve been a very successful person because I have many, many friends. I say I’ve been successful; we’ve been successful. We’ve also been successful in that we just celebrated 22 years of marriage, and it’s growing stronger…
If there’s such a thing as a legacy of Becky Bell, it will be that had she lived she would have helped others. But in death, that caring, loving Becky Bell is still going to help many people. It’s kind of ironic, because I can see Becky working as an intern for a feminist organization, committed and out front, marching and all. And if it wasn’t this issue it would be another issue that would help people…
She did have a mind of her own. She was encouraged to reason and think for herself…The letter we found says “I’ve got to do this myself.” She was a strongwilled young person.
KB: I’d say “It’s all right, dear,” about something, and she’d go, “Oh, Mom, you’re so fake.”
BB: Most of her real close friends did not know. One of her friends knew she was pregnant, but that friend did not know Becky had an abortion. She didn’t tell a soul.
Becky had been in the hospital on two prior occasions, and both times she was attended by this one nurse, Ann. When we took Becky into the hospital the night she died, Ann was there. After we left to go get a sandwich and before Becky quit breathing, Ann knelt down beside her and asked, “Becky, are you in trouble?” And she said, “No, Ann, I’ll be all right.” Becky didn’t know she was dying; she knew that something was wrong, but she didn’t even mention the abortion at that point in time.
OTI: Is there anythingyou would like to say to other parents?
BB: First off, our outspokenness against these laws is not in any way, shape or form designed to disrupt the family structure, but, believe me, I can speak from a disrupted family structure. I, like any other father, would want to know, and believed that my daughter would have come to us. But what we live with today is knowing that when Becky made the decision not to come to us, the laws, the way they are now, prevented her from getting safe medical care. So the pain that we live with now, the nightmare we face every day, is because others dictated what she must do when she needed help the most.
I would say to them, don’t take for granted that your kids will come to you. Understand what the laws are, understand the punishment, and I pray to God that no one else will have the nightmare we live with. They are punishing these young women.
KB: Bill and I aren’t out promoting abortion or telling kids not to talk to mom and dad, or trying to hurt anybody. But we never thought anything would happen to our family because we did everything we should, and lived a decent life. But a child loves you like you love them, and they’ll try to protect you like you’ll try to protect them, and I’m sure that, as I look back on it, I couldn’t sit around and talk about my sex life with my daughter. I wanted to be perfect in her eyes, and she wanted to be perfect in my eyes. And she died thinking we didn’t know she’d done something wrong.
All I can say to the people who say, well, I know that my daughter would come to me, I knew my daughter would come to me – and look where she is, in her grave. And it can happen, even in the best of families that have it all.
Mary Lou Greenberg is active with the New York Pro-Choice Coalition and writes on reproductive rights for the Revolutionary Worker newspaper.