Becky Bell

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Rebecca Suzanne "Becky" Bell (August 24, 1971 – September 16, 1988) was an American teenage girl who died of complications from a septic abortion.[1][2] After becoming pregnant, Bell inquired about a legal abortion but was hindered by Indiana state laws which required either her parents' consent or a waiver from a judge.[1][3] Instead, Bell either obtained an illegal abortion or attempted to self-abort, leading to a fatal infection.[3] The coroner found that Bell died of a sepsis as a consequence of an unsterile abortion, although this explanation was subsequently disputed by physicians associated with the pro-life movement.[4] Following Bell's death, her parents became advocates for the repeal of parental-consent laws.


Bell discovered she was pregnant in 1988. She went to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Indiana with her friend Heather Clark, seeking an abortion.[5] There she was told that state law required consent from her parents for the procedure and that most minors in her area simply went to Louisville, less than 100 miles away, to avoid parental disclosure.[3] She also had the option of going before a judge to argue for a waiver of parental consent, but reportedly feared that her parents would find out.[6] Bell was subsequently confused about what to do, according to Clark, alternating between plans to have an abortion in Kentucky, carrying to term and placing the baby for adoption, or running away to California.[3]

On a Saturday night in September 1988, Bell left her house, telling her parents that she was going to a party.[3] She came home ill, disheveled, and in tears.[3] Her illness worsened over the next few days but she would not seek medical attention.[3] Her parents ultimately forced her to see their family physician who diagnosed severe pneumonia and had her hospitalized.[3] She died on September 16, 1988.

Bell's autopsy revealed fetal matter and evidence of infection in her genital tract, but no evidence of internal injury or marks on the cervix.[3] The official cause of death was attributed to septic abortion complicated by pneumonia.[7] The county coroner and pathologist both later told the press that the abortion and infection were most likely caused by the use of unsterile instruments during an illegal abortion procedure.[3][6] After Bell's death, her parents found among Bell's possessions contact information for abortion clinics in nearby Kentucky, which did not have parental consent laws, but there was no record of her visiting a Kentucky clinic.[3] It remains unclear whether Bell obtained an induced abortion or induced the abortion herself.[8][9][3] Two years after her death, Clark, the friend who went to Planned Parenthood with Bell, told reporters that she did not believe that Bell had an induced abortion.[3]

Parental consent laws[edit]

Following Bell's death, her parents, Bill and Karen Bell, campaigned against parental consent laws, which they blamed for their daughter's death.[10] The Bells worked with the Feminist Majority Foundation, which credited them with helping to turn public opinion against a parental-notification law in Oregon.[11] The Bells worked against proposed parental notification laws in Colorado in 1998.[7] In 2006 they testified before the Michigan House of Representatives in opposition to a pending parental consent law.[12]

In response to the Bells' lobbying efforts, pro-life groups argued that the autopsy showed no signs of trauma or infection in the cervix or uterus (signs of induced abortion) and that the cause of death was most likely due to pneumonia which led to an incomplete miscarriage.[13][14] In coverage of this debate on 60 Minutes, Morley Safer characterized the anti-abortion movement's response as an attack on "the Bells' motives and the character of their dead daughter".[6] In the 60 Minutes interview, John C. Willke, a retired physician and then president of the National Right to Life Committee, maintained that Bell had a "normal miscarriage" rather than an induced abortion. Willke claimed support for his view from independent experts, although 60 Minutes found that at least one expert cited by Willke had in fact not reviewed the autopsy and did not feel qualified to comment on it. Willke's opinion was disputed on the program by John Pless, a forensic pathologist associated with Bell's autopsy, who affirmed his finding that she most likely had an illegal abortion.[6]

Lifestories: Families in Crisis episode[edit]

On August 15, 1992, HBO aired an episode of Lifestories: Families in Crisis based on Bell's death, which was entitled "Public Law 106: The Becky Bell Story". Dina Spybey portrayed Becky Bell, Debra Monk portrayed Karen Bell and Craig Wasson portrayed Bill Bell.[15]

Spirit of '73: Rock For Choice album[edit]

Spirit of '73: Rock For Choice is a 1995 compilation album issued by 550 Music/Epic Records. The album was put together by the activist group Feminist Majority and the liner notes state that the proceeds of the album went to supporting the Becky Bell/Rosie Jimenez Campaign "to lift consent laws and federal funding restrictions that are forcing young women to turn to back-alley abortions".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Brotman, Barbara (April 8, 1990). "Abortion Law Blamed In Death". Chicago Tribune. On Sept. 16, 1988, Becky Bell died of what the Marion County coroner ruled was infection following an abortion and of pneumonia. 
  2. ^ Frolik, Joe (September 9, 1990). "Abortion debate shifting: Individuals become symbols in dispute". The Plain Dealer. p. 1-A, 14-A. (Subscription required (help)). According to Dr. Dennis J. Nicholas, the coroner here in Marion County, Becky Bell was killed by pneumonia brought on by the use of unsterile instruments during an illegal abortion. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Dettmer, Jamie (May 5, 1992). "Abortion's combat zone; Parents". The Times. London. (subscription required)
  4. ^ See, among other sources:
    • Hewitt, Selina K. (1991). "Hodgson v. Minnesota: Chipping away at Roe v. Wade in the Aftermath of Webster". Pepperdine Law Review. 18 (4): 955–6. 
    • Tribe, Laurence (1992). Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes (revised ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. p. 202. ISBN 978-0-393-30956-0. 
    • Kelly, Morgan (January 20, 2006). "'THESE LAWS KILL': Notification rule drives girls to back alleys, pro-choice activist says". Charleston Gazette. Karen Bell's 17-year-old daughter Becky got an illegal abortion in 1988 and later died. Their home state of Indiana made girls get their parents' permission before they could have a safe abortion, Bell said during a Statehouse press conference. 
    • Derringer, Alan (July 19, 1992). "Teen's death propels parents into abortion battle". Dallas Morning News. Before 17-year-old Becky Bell died from an illegal abortion, her parents led an unconcerned, apolitical existence in a middle-class suburb of Indianapolis... The coroner has said he believes that Becky or someone else induced an abortion with an unsterilized instrument—something like a knitting needle or piece of wire. 
    • James, Rich (June 27, 1990). "NEW RULING REKINDLES ABORTION DEBATE". Post-Tribune. Becky was a vivacious, blue-eyed, blonde when she died of an infection after self-aborting in September 1988. 
    • Dettmer, Jamie (May 5, 1992). "Abortion's combat zone". The Times. (Bell) was too ashamed or too anxious about causing disappointment to turn to her parents for help in ending a pregnancy. Her death, the result of a botched illegal termination, possibly self-induced, devastated her family and friends and set Bill and Karen Bell on a journey across America to argue against laws requiring minors to gain parental consent before terminating a pregnancy. 
    • Chiang, Harriet (January 22, 1996). "Indiana Dad in S.F. to Tell How Abortion Law Led to Death". San Francisco Chronicle. (Bell) never gave her parents cause to worry except when she turned cartwheels down the street to raise money for the humane society. But at 17, the tall, slender, blond girl died in 1988 after a botched illegal abortion. 
    • Beach, Mark (September 29, 1991). "Daughter's death leads to an odyssey". Sunday News (Lancaster, PA). Becky Bell died from an illegal abortion in 1988 in Indianapolis, Ind. 
    • Carlson, Margaret (July 9, 1990). "Abortion's Hardest Cases". TIME. They (the Bells) did not know that there was any such thing as a parental-consent law. But there is such a law in Indiana, where the Bells live and where their daughter Becky, 17, died after an illegal abortion. 
    • "PARENTS OF TEEN WHO DIED FIGHT CONSENT LAWS". Orlando Sentinel. Associated Press. August 3, 1990. p. A17. The parents of a young woman who died from a back-alley abortion are joining forces with a national women's rights group to overturn state laws requiring minors to get parental consent for abortions... The Bells' 17-year-old daughter, Becky, died in 1988 from a massive infection after receiving an abortion from an unqualified practitioner. 
  5. ^ Frolik, Joe (9 September 1990). "Abortion debate shifting: Individuals become symbols in dispute." The Plain Dealer (Plain Dealer Publishing Co). p. 1-A, 14-A.
  6. ^ a b c d "Becky's Story". 60 Minutes. CBS News. February 24, 1991. 
  7. ^ a b Abbot, Karen (October 29, 1998). "Foes of Notification Enlist Grim, Dirty Images". Rocky Mountain News. Denver. p. 11A. 
  8. ^ James, Rich (June 27, 1990). "NEW RULING REKINDLES ABORTION DEBATE". Post-Tribune. Becky was a vivacious, blue-eyed, blonde when she died of an infection after self-aborting in September 1988. 
  9. ^ Brotman, Barbara (April 8, 1990). "Abortion Law Blamed In Death". Chicago Tribune. 
  10. ^ Lewin, Tamar (May 28, 1992). "Parental Consent to Abortion: How Enforcement Can Vary". New York Times. 
  11. ^ Lewin, Tamar (October 27, 1991). "In Debate on Abortion, 2 Girls Make It Real". The New York Times. p. 1. 
  12. ^ Michelman, Kate (May–June 2006). "When parental involvement laws go wrong". The Humanist. 66 (3). (subscription required)
  13. ^ Bernard Nathanson, M.D. "In Memoriam: The Becky Bell Story." Bernadell Technical Bulletin , November 1990.
  14. ^ Appendix: The Facts in the Death of Becky Bell in Cynthia McKnight, Life Without Roe: Making Predictions about Illegal Abortions. Horatio Storer Foundation. Washington. DC. 1992. pages 25-27.
  15. ^ "Lifestories: Families in Crisis Public Law 106: The Becky Bell Story." Retrieved January 22, 2007.

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