It was one of the most moving news conferences to happen around here in a long time. Karen and Bill Bell, of Indianapolis, stepped before the microphones in a packed room at the National Press Club Wednesday morning to talk about the death of their child.
Becky Bell had just turned 17, and she was a rising high school senior. She became pregnant and died in September 1988 of a massive infection caused by an illegal abortion. Indiana Public Law 106 requires parental consent before a woman under the age of 18 can obtain a legal abortion.
"She died because of a parental consent law that we had never heard of," said Bill Bell. "Don't you think we would have wanted to know? Don't you think we would have wanted to help her? There is no difference between the Bell family and the family who insists on their right to know. Becky confided to a friend, 'I can't tell mom and dad. I love them too much.'
"Parental consent laws are not written for the young women who can to go their parents. They are clearly designed to punish those who for whatever reason cannot. The loss of our daughter has shattered our lives. It is our hope that in speaking out we can spare other families the nightmare we are living."
The Bells have been married for 22 years and have a son who is 21. They are about as All-American a family as you could find: He was homecoming king in high school and attended college on a basketball scholarship. He sells wholesale office products and the family has lived in the same home for 16 years. Karen Bell was a year behind her future husband in the same high school. She was a cheerleader and homecoming queen. She has been a full-time homemaker since the birth of her son, and volunteered as an elementary school teacher's aide for 13 years.
They have joined a campaign by the Feminist Majority to repeal laws that restrict young women's access to legal abortions. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, said the campaign will "focus on what happens with parental consent laws. These laws kill young women. We are determined to make the public deal with what happens."
They have two powerful new weapons: a 29-minute video that "goes to the heartland where these laws are enforced," as Smeal put it, and a memorial bracelet bearing the names of young women such as Becky Bell who have died from illegal abortions. The Becky Bell campaign, as it will be known, will target campuses. "We are determined that young people talk to young people and to their parents. Just as young people turned around the war in Vietnam, we believe they will turn this around. They are the ones most affected."
Smeal said parental restrictions are being enforced in 14 states. Bill Bell said backers of these laws use parents' fears about their own daughters as a way to "erode the rights of every woman."
"The decision to join Ellie did not come easily," he said. "I stand before you today, living proof that these laws are punitive, restrictive and deadly. Karen and I have committed and dedicated whatever time it takes. This story has to be told."
He described the two sides of their family as large, with "quite a strong family bond. I submit to you that the pressures brought to bear on her were that -- there were no other young people in the family who had been in trouble.
"I had the right to know. I took very good care of my daughter. But we can't regulate what they are going to do in a time of crisis."
Indiana has a law that allows young women to bypass parents and get consent from a judge for an abortion, but research done for the video by a former state health commissioner found that only 12 such waivers were issued last year, according to Smeal. "And in Indianapolis, the key judge is a right-to-lifer."
The Bells' daughter "made a determination not to come to us," said Bill Bell, "and once she made that decision everywhere she turned it wasn't safe." Becky's friends have helped them reconstruct what happened, but they do not know who performed the abortion or where.
Karen Bell said she had taught her daughter about birth control. "I had not discussed abortion with her, because I didn't have to," she said. "I said, 'Please protect yourself.' The boy had told her he was sterile, and she was naive enough to believe it."
"When my Becky died, I died with her. I remember her dreams of wanting to live on a farm and having children. She wanted to spare us the shame of knowing that she had had sex and was pregnant. The boy did not want her. She was afraid we did not want her, either. Becky told me everything she did until she fell in love. I wonder how many of us remember our first love.
"She paid the price and she didn't get to live. She was a good, decent little girl who loved us too much, and who died for it."