Recently I became aware of a case from 1988 where a young woman in the USA died because parental consent laws in her state meant that she couldn’t get a safe legal abortion from Planned Parenthood early in her pregnancy as she wished to do.
That’s a fairly bald statement, and a controversial one. There is argument about the responsiblity of parental notification laws for her death, with pro-choicers claiming what I state above, and anti-choicers claiming that pro-choicers are lying about why she died. [links are provided at the foot of this post – read through first please] Both sides use persuasive rhetoric – I read the pro-choice sites on this death first, and was outraged. Then I found some anti-choice sites, and despite their hateful tone towards the dead I became indignant at the misrepresentations in the first sites. Then I went – hang on a minute: the anti-choicers have pulled a bait and switch here.
Here’s what happened: the pregnant teenager was too afraid of her parents’ reaction to tell them she was pregnant, was unwilling to attempt judicial bypass “how can I tell the judge if I can’t tell my parents?” and didn’t have the money to go out of state to a clinic where parental notification/consent laws did not apply. She sought access to an illegal abortion. She became very ill, with what later became a septic pneumonia, and refused to let her parents take her to the hospital because she was afraid they would find out about the pregnancy. She finally allowed them to take her to the hospital after expressing huge relief that her period had started. The hospital was unable to save her life, and there her parents discovered that she had been pregnant.
The parents were understandably horrified, as any parents who had a beloved young daughter die would be. They were especially upset that parental notification laws, with which they had previously in principle agreed, meant that their daughter died because of her attempt to hide her pregnancy and end it without them ever knowing about it.  They campaigned against the parental notification laws vociferously, with moving testimonies regarding how they had been sure that their daughter would come to them for help in such a situation, but they had been wrong, and now she was unnecessarily dead. There was a lot of sympathetic support for them and opinion shifted against the laws.
It didn’t take long for the anti-choice movement to smear the dead teenager and her family. The parents believed that their daughter had actually managed to obtain an illegal abortion, as she was no longer pregnant at the time of her death, and that her septic infection was due to the procedure. Indeed this is still how the case is presented on many pro-choice websites  – she obtained a “back-alley” abortion, she got a septic infection, it killed her. Anti-choicers argue that the case is more complex than this simple morality tale. Illegal abortion appears to be not actually how she caught the infection that killed her, and once they discovered that the anti-choice movement vilified the family, and also PP, NOW and NARAL, as liars.
The kicker seems to be what is on the death certificate: “Septic abortion with pnemonia”. Quite reasonably, to many people this implies an infection due to a surgical abortion with later pnemonia. But as abortion merely means the end of a pregnancy, the cause of death could equally well be explained that due to her pneumonia, she developed a septic condition that caused a spontaneous abortion (aka miscarriage), and complications from both the pneumonia and the miscarriage caused her death..
Anti-choice activists soon obtained copies of the autopsy report indicating that there was no indication of uterine surgery such as occurs with cervical dilation during abortion, and that her pregnancy had terminated spontaneously i.e. a miscarriage, not an abortion. They labelled the dead teenager as a slutty druggie at the same time, outing her stint in drug rehab prior to her pregnancy, implying that her drug use was the explanation for the septic infection that killed her. [3,4,5]
It’s curious that they try to minimise the pnemonia’s connection to any abortion by claiming it was the same micro-organism that killed celebrity Muppeteer Jim Henson, but then also argue that her drug use contributed to her infection in the first place (was Henson a drug-user too?). It’s fairly incoherent, to say the least. Their claim that she never had a surgical abortion appears quite possible, assuming that their information here is reliable. But does that make the parents wrong on how the parental consent laws contributed to their daughter’s death?
So the parental claim is:
- [my daughter is dead][due to parental notification laws denying her a safe early abortion][and because she sought an illegal abortion].
The anti-choice counter is:
- [your daughter is dead][because she caught a random infection][exacerbated by drug use][and she never had an illegal abortion].
The anti-choice counter does not address the parents’ central claim that the parental consent laws are the reason their daughter is dead. Let’s assume that the anti-choice information is correct that it wasn’t an illegal abortion that killed her. That doesn’t mean that the parental consent laws are any less responsible for her death.
Follow the timeline.
- She falls pregnant, and very shortly afterwards goes to Planned Parenthood seeking an abortion. They tell her it cannot be done without notifying her parents of the procedure.
- She does not tell her parents. Weeks go by, she is still pregnant, she still wants an abortion, she still does not tell her parents.
- She becomes ill. Then very ill. Her parents want to take her to the hospital. She refuses *because the hospital will discover her pregnancy and tell her parents*.
- She passes uterine clots, expresses huge relief to her mother that her period has begun, and tells her she will go to the hospital now.
- Unfortunately, the septic lung infection has progressed to the state of alveolar disintegration and lung failure (probably what precipitated the miscarriage) and the hospital cannot save her life.
Her name was Becky Bell.
If Becky had been able to have the early safe legal abortion that she wished to have, she would no longer have been pregnant at the time she was infected with streptococcus pneumoniae. She would have had no reason to refuse being taken to the hospital when her parents wanted to take her. With earlier treatment, her lung infection had an excellent chance of being successfully eliminated and she would still be alive today.
The Bells’ central claim that parental consent laws are the reason their daughter is dead stands in this analysis, although there are some anti-abortion sites that acknowledge the central claim and attempt to rebut it directly and more respectfully, arguing that if her parents had known she was pregnant they would have also insisted on earlier and thus probably life-saving treatment . I’m sure that if they had known she was pregnant that’s exactly what the parents would have done. But the law did exist, and Becky still didn’t tell her parents, and she died from what should have been a treatable pneumonia.
[Becky’s] mother Karen said, “Two years ago I would have been totally f
or the parental consent law, but not now. … Mothers and fathers have both come up and said, ‘Well, we just know that our daughters would come to us, we know it.’ And I said, ‘And I knew Becky would come to me.’ And look where she is.”
Do the disrespectful anti-choice activists peddling the claim that parental consent laws had nothing to do with her death really not see that their logic fails? Or do they not care so long as their base continues to have the rhetorical wool pulled over their eyes? Why is their language so hateful about teenage girls having to “be responsible” for their “bad choices”?
In our current culture of shame for sexually active girls (but not for the boys they have sex with), teenagers who get pregnant are going to continue to not want to tell their parents in large numbers. Sometimes their reasons are rationally based in fear of abuse, shunning and/or expulsion from the family. Sometimes their reasons are not so rational, but they refuse to tell their parents anyway. How many other teenagers die from complications of pregnancy that could be treatable if only they would tell their parents about being pregnant?
Until we change the culture of shame to one of support, where their choice about whether to continue the pregnancy or not is validated, pregnant teenagers will continue to die because they will not tell their parents that they are pregnant. Parental consent laws do nothing to stop the culture of shame which is the real killer in this instance, and in many others all around the world.
Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism