IT HAD ALL THE HALLMARKS of a pre-Roe v. Wade tragedy: a desperate young woman, an illegal abortion, a promising life truncated by a shortsighted law that assumed politicians, rather than women, knew best. But when Becky Bell, a high school junior, died of an illegal abortion, the year was neither 1958 nor 1968. It was 1988, fifteen years after Roe declared that the constitutional right to privacy guaranteed a woman's right to choose abortion safely and legally.
Becky lived in Indiana, where state law required that young women seeking abortions obtain permission from either their parents or a judge. The family was close, but--like many teenagers--Becky was afraid of disappointing them by revealing the pregnancy. The idea of appearing before a judge, discussing this intimate situation with a complete stranger who was in a position of authority, must have been terrifying as well. Rather than go to court, Becky had an illegal abortion. A few days later, she complained of feeling sick. At first, her parents thought she had pneumonia or the flu. Her fever spiked to 104. By the time her parents got her to the emergency room, Becky was so weak they had to carry her inside.
Her mother later recounted what happened when they arrived: "I heard the nurses say her veins had collapsed. They put oxygen on her, but Becky pulled the mask off. I leaned down and said, 'Honey, tell Mom, tell me, honey: She said, 'Mom, Dad, I love you, forgive me.' And that was it. Her heart stopped."
I met Becky's parents, Bill and Karen Bell, in late 1989. We were each testifying before a committee of the Michigan House of Representatives that was considering a parental consent law. Michigan's governor at the time, Jim Blanchard, was strongly pro-choice, but Michigan's anti-choice movement was one of the most aggressive and well organized in the country. The anti-choice movement was pressuring the legislature to pass a measure they believed would seem reasonable. Who, after all, does not agree that parents should be involved in their daughters' decisions? But the Bells knew the issue was more complicated. They had agreed to travel throughout the country to tell their story so legislators and others would understand the real dangers of state-mandated parental consent and notification laws. Their willingness to speak out is one of the most personally courageous, selfless acts I have ever seen.
I already knew the Bells' story, but I was nonetheless heartbroken meeting them for the first time. As a mother, I could only imagine the pain they must have endured. Before the Michigan hearing began, I saw Bill and Karen across the room. Bill is a big, blond, garrulous man, the kind whose warmth envelopes you. Karen is more reserved than Bill, but every bit as engaging and caring. Bill was interested in politics, but neither of them was politically active before Becky's death, and certainly not on this issue. They were friendly, middle class, and hardworking. If a tragedy like...