Pro-Choice “Facts”: The Story of Becky Bell

The story of Becky Bell, a teenager who died in 1988, has been used by pro-choice groups for decades to rally the public against laws that would require parents to be notified about their teen’s abortions. One can simply do a google search to find examples of abortion rights groups discussing her story. But what really happened?

Pro-Choice groups contend that Becky Bell was pregnant and afraid to tell her parents. Since her home state had a law that required parents to be notified of their teen’s abortions, she had an illegal abortion (or self-induced an abortion, the story varies) and died from a resulting infection.

A movie was made about Becky Bell’s life and you can still find the story flying around the internet and on the websites of various pro-choice groups. While most of the better known groups have since stopped repeating the Becky Bell story because of the evidence against it, the story still pops up from time to time.

Carolyn Gargaro, a respected pro-life scholar and author, discusses the truth behind the Becky Bell story.

Her article (which can be found here in its entirety) is quoted below.

“Becky Bell was a 17-year old Indiana girl who reportedly died of an illegal abortion on September 16, 1988.

“Pro-choice” and Feminist organizations, especially Planned Parenthood and Eleanor Smeal’s “Feminist Majority Fund,” immediately seized on Becky Bell’s death and stated as fact that it was directly caused by Indiana’s parental consent laws. They dubbed Becky the “first known victim of parental consent laws” and launched massive media campaign and enlisted her parents to hit the talk show and lecture circuit to denounce parental notification and consent laws all over the country – the law that they claimed “caused Becky’s death.” As Ms. Magazine put it, “She Died Because of a Law.” [1]

This received a lot of media attention for awhile, until the National Right to Life Committee got a copy of the post-mortem report, which showed no sign of either induced abortion or infection in or near the reproductive organs. What the report did show was that Becky Bell died of a deadly and fast-acting form of pneumonia, similar to that which killed Muppets creator Jim Henson, which had neither originated in nor had affected the reproductive system. She had contracted this especially lethal form of pneumonia at about the same time that she had a miscarriage

Various doctors have confirmed that Becky Bell did not die from an induced abortion. Dr. John Curry, former head of the Tissue Bank at Bethesda Naval Hospital, reviewed the coroner’s pathology report. He noted that the report listed massive infection in Becky Bell’s lungs and in other areas of her body, but there was no evidence of infection on the outside of her uterus or within it. He also stated that the germ that killed her was a common pneumonia germ “… which is unlikely to originate from a contaminated abortion procedure.” [2]

The physician who personally examined Becky’s body, Dr. John Pless, head of forensic pathology at Indiana University Medical Center, stated that “I cannot prove she had an illegal abortion. I cannot prove she had anything but a spontaneous abortion [miscarriage].” [3]

Former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson also concluded, after examining the medical evidence, that: “There is no infection in or around the uterus, no pus, no odor to the uterus, and no peritonitis. The serosa of the uterus is described as “smooth and glistening. In the case of a septic abortion, this tissue would be shaggy and discolored … Indeed, there is no evidence for an induced abortion at all: no marks or stigmata of instrumentation in the genital tract … In short, the cause of death here was probably overwhelming pneumonia unrelated to the abortion/ miscarriage.” [4]

Finally, Dr. Curtis Harris, president of the American Academy of Medical Ethics, consulted in detail with four leading specialists in the fields of infectious disease, infertility, pathology, and obstetrics/gynecology. The opinion of these five national experts was unanimous : That Becky Bell had an incomplete miscarriage ( not an induced abortion); that her uterus was not marked or infected at all; and that the cause of her death was pneumonia brought on by the aspiration of vomit, and that this pathology was not related to the miscarriage in any manner. [5]

Shortly after NRLC started distributing copies of the autopsy report and calling for a review of the coroner’s report concluding the death was a result of a “septic abortion” (which the post-mortem contradicted), Mr. and Mrs. Bell dropped out of sight and Eleanor Smeal never said another word about it.

Less than six months after Becky Bell’s death, Erica Richardson, a Maryland sixteen-year-old, died from a legal abortion. [6] Erica underwent the abortion without her parents’ knowledge or consent. Where is NARAL’s outrage at Erica’s death? Perhaps there is none because her death did not further their pro-choice agenda.

It is a tragedy that Becky Bell died, but is also a tragedy when the pro-choice movement purposely lies and exploits her death to further their own agenda.”

In case there is still any doubt, here is a quote from Becky’s autopsy report:

“”The uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries are present. They are of usual size and shape for age. No tumors are present. There is evidence of recent pregnancy with recent partial abortion. The uterus is enlarged consistent with current pregnancy of age approximately 2-3 months. The cervix is dilated uniformly without evidence of mucosal or submucosal injury. Extruding from the cervical os is hemorraghic and necrotic red-tan and grey-brown tissue consistent with products of conception. The lower third of the uterine cavity has only the flat mucosa without obvious evidence of instrumentation. However, the upper 2/3 of the uterine cavity has a mixture of blood clot and necrotic and hemmorraghic products of conception. There are no recognizable fetal parts, and the amniotic membrance has been ruptured, leaving only a small area recognizable as thin blue-tan glistening membranes. There is no evidence of hydatid mole or invasive chorio-carcinoma. The serosa of the uterus is smooth and glistening and without exudate, and there are no areas of perforation or pus in or around the uterus. The right ovary has a 1 x 1 1/2 x 1 inch bright yellow corpus luteum. The remainder of the ovaries shows unremarkable for age ovaries. There are no injuries of the vagina.”

Note: The term “abortion” in medical parlance (and as it appears on death certificates) usually refers to a “spontaneous abortion” or miscarriage.) Had Becky had an actual “abortion” – illegal or otherwise, the report would have read “induced abortion.”

Doctor J.C. Wilke goes on to explain the autopsy report:

” That she was pregnant is obvious. The cervix in a 17-year-old’s first pregnancy would have to be stretched open by an abortionist, causing some tearing of the lining of that cervix, even by the most gentle dilation. If a trained abortionist had performed an abortion, there would have been evidence of scraping, trauma, scratching, and tearing. Had an untrained person attempted an abortion, there would have been much more damage to the cervix and uterus. To have a cervix “dilated uniformly without evidence of mucosal or submucosal injury” totally rules out the use of any instrumentation; rather, it tells any physician that this was a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), not an induced abortion.

The description of what “extrudes” from the “cervical os” (cervical opening) is the normal leftover from a nearly completed miscarriage. The report then further states that the lower third of the uterus was “without obvious evidence of instrumentation.” The report describes the remaining tissue in the upper two-thirds as exactly what one would expect from a miscarriage. Then the report speaks of the serosa, which is the outer covering of the womb, which is described as “smooth, glistening and without exudate.” Exudate would be pus or oozing if the organ was infected. If this had been a case of septic abortion, this tissue would be shaggy and discolored (not “smooth, glistening and without exudate”). Further, the report stated, “there are no areas of perforation or pus.” Finally, there are “no injuries of the vagina.” Clearly she did not have an induced abortion. The autopsy report of the lungs and pleural (chest) cavities take up over half a page of single-spaced reporting, and describe the near total destruction of those organs by infection.”(7)

It is sad that pro-choice advocates would exploit the death of one teenager and concoct a false story while ignoring the deaths of many teenagers from legal abortions. For the stories of some of these teens, as well as adults, go here.

One example is Jammie Garcia, age 14.

Jammie Garcia had her abortion performed by John Coleman at Hachamovitch’s A to Z abortion facility on February 18, 1994. Four days later, on February 23, she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of a Houston hospital, with spiking fever, chills, nausea, pain, respiratory distress, a distended abdomen, low blood oxygen levels, and foul-smelling discharge. An examination revealed inflammation and a tear in her cervix that was oozing pus. “J.G.’s” condition deteriorated, and she died in the Intensive Care Unit on March 2.

Christina Dunigan reviewed her autopsy report and says:

“Jammie’s body was wracked with abscesses, spreading infection that had entered her body through the damage the abortion had done to her uterus. Her brain was swollen. As near as Mona [another researcher] and I could figure, Jammie’s fetid fluids had made their way up through her damaged bowels and into her lungs.”

Her death prompted an investigation of the clinic where she died.

The March 1994 inspection revealed that the staff were inadequately trained in how to properly sterilize instruments. The administrator, Kristen Hing Fehr, was evidently aware of the fact that the autoclave used to sterilize instruments was not functioning properly. As for the instruments themselves, “two loop forceps, two tenaculums and one curette were found to have small particles of dried brownish-dark red material on them. Three speculums were found to have small particles of dried clear material on them.” “The only sterilized abortion tray in the procedure room was found to contain a curette with a loop whose edge was visibly jagged instead of smooth.”(8)

Although this death happened over a decade ago, in my experience, no pro-choice group has ever been observed discussing Jammie’s case- or admitting that Planned Parenthood’s policy of fighting clinic regulations contributed to it.


1. Rochelle Sharp, “She Died Because of a Law,” Ms., July/August 1990, 80-81.
2. Dave Andrusko. “They Have No Shame!” National Right to Life News , August 16, 1990.
3. Joe Frolik. Cleveland Plain Dealer , September 9, 1990, page 1.
4. Bernard Nathanson, M.D. “In Memoriam: The Becky Bell Story.” Bernadell Technical Bulletin , November 1990, pages 4 and 5.
5. Dave Andrusko. “They Have No Shame!” National Right to Life News , August 16, 1990.
6. James A. Miller. “A Tale of Two Abortions,” Human Life International Reports, March 1991, 14.
7. Dr.& Mrs. J.C. Wilke “Why Can’t We Love Them Both”
8. Source: Travis County District Court Cause No. 94-07517

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