Abortion Activism Aimed at Students


The symbols--bracelets commemorating the dead, the face-etched grief of a heartland couple--are in place. The video has been made. The press conference, at least the one in Los Angeles, has been held.

All that is needed now is a million volunteers--mainly women, college- and high-school students--to demonstrate, sit in, vote and otherwise salvage victory in a losing battle for public opinion over one aspect of this country's prolonged, divisive abortion controversy.

Allyson Wagner plans to be among the first of that million--or whatever the number ultimately may be.

A 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, Wagner was one of about 30 students attending the initial Los Angeles organizing meeting in support of "The Becky Bell-Rosie Jimenez Campaign."

This is a nationwide effort that seeks to repeal parental consent laws that require minors to get permission from one or both parents before having an abortion.

Thirty-three states, including California, have passed laws requiring parental consent or notification before minors may receive abortions.

The California law, as well as those in some other states, is now tied up in the courts. But large majorities--up to 80%--have supported the notion of parental consent in public opinion polls.

Named for two young women who died from complications of illegal abortions, the Bell-Jimenez campaign was announced last week by the Fund for the Feminist Majority, a national women's group headed by Eleanor Smeal, former two-term president of the National Organization for Women.

The fund has enlisted as spokespersons Bill and Karen Bell, parents of Becky Bell, 17, who died in 1988 of complications after an illegal abortion in Indiana, a parental consent state. The Bells' daughter chose that route rather than diminish herself in their eyes, her parents say.

The names of Becky Bell and Rosie Jimenez (whose death is blamed on a cutoff of federal aid for abortions for the poor) will be among those engraved on "memorial bracelets" similar to those worn in remembrance of Vietnam prisoners of war; the fund plans to distribute the bracelets in large numbers. Supporters will be urged to wear them until consent laws are changed.

The fund also has produced "Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women's Lives," a 29-minute video recounting the case of Bell and other facets of the fund's arguments against parental consent laws. The group also plans to distribute thousands of the videos, as well as sending the Bells and Smeal to campus forums nationwide.

But the ambitious campaign's success or failure ultimately hinges on the long-term commitment of students like Wagner, who says she is a political novice.

Wagner, who spent the summer in Los Angeles as an intern with a group that works on population control strategies, sees the abortion issue as a possible political ignition spark for her generation: "It's an issue I can't ignore any longer. . . . For too long now we've been labeled an apathetic generation. Abortion or the environment may be creeping up on (students) as a rallying point."

Wagner added that she was nudged toward activism last year when her campus was galvanized by debate over a stringent abortion law passed by Pennsylvania legislators. A further spur, she said, was a disagreement with a friend over whether one person can make a political difference, a dispute that she clearly wanted to win.

Katherine Spillar, the fund's national coordinator, said that mobilizing a million student volunteers--comparable to the anti-Vietnam student protest movement of a generation ago--is "very realistic."

Students accounted for about a third of the estimated 800,000 supporters of legal abortion who turned out for demonstrations in Washington, last April and November, she said, citing the figures as evidence that students are ready to be mobilized as abortion-rights advocates.

In its opening phase, Spillar said the fund has targeted Massachusetts, the first state to adopt a consent law, and Indiana, the Bells' home state.

In Indiana, the fund announced plans to challenge judges who hear requests of waiver from parental consent requirements. The fund argues that Indiana judges are biased and grant only about a dozen waivers a year.

Other targeted states include Michigan and Oregon, where consent laws are being considered, as well as California, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Opponents of abortion think the fund may have some success with its strategy but doubt that students will be important soldiers in the protracted war over abortion.

"They'll be more successful at drawing them (students) out to rallies than getting them down to the nitty-gritty," said Janet Carroll, associate director of the National Right to Life Committee's Western office.

Carroll contended that students are "a very transient population" and that voting-age students are "not great at getting out and voting."

The nub of of the argument over parental consent laws is whether such measures foster or inhibit communication between parents and daughters. Anti-abortion forces argue the laws do promote such communication, while abortion rights advocates counter that they drive a wedge between children and parents.

And this is where the Bells figure importantly in the fund's strategy against consent laws.

Bill and Karen Bell said their daughter was "afraid her parents wouldn't want her" if they learned she was pregnant. Becky also told a friend that she couldn't "tell mom and dad because I love them too much," they explained during one of several appearances in Southern California.

Bill Bell added that he and his wife are "living proof that no matter how loving a family is . . . we have no guarantees that our daughters will come to us in this time of crisis."

Thrust by a personal tragedy into a national controversy, the Bells seem ambivalent about their role. They say that the whirlwind of speaking and touring that now consumes their lives has its "healing" aspects. But Karen Bell, in Los Angeles for four days, said she was "so homesick I could cry right now."

Yet in ways they seem tailor-made as symbols in American politics. At 47, he is a former high school football and basketball player and was his high school homecoming king. She is a former cheerleader and high school homecoming queen.

Before her daughter's death, Karen Bell, 46, also was a full-time housewife with little interest in the world beyond her suburban Indianapolis home, she said. Bill Bell said he left his job as an office products salesman and will devote full time to campaigning against consent laws for about a year. After that, he will decide what to do next, he said.

Until their daughter died, under circumstances that remain somewhat mysterious, the Bells said they were unaware that Indiana had a parental consent law. Nor did they know that their daughter was pregnant or that an abortion had been performed; they learned this from the coroner, who listed their daughter's cause of death as infections stemming from a "septic abortion," they said. The person who performed the abortion has never been found.

Abortion foes dispute the Bells' story, citing the testimony of a friend of Becky who maintains that Becky did not have an abortion, that she may have died of a miscarriage that resulted in a massive infection.

Carroll of National Right to Life referred to this testimony before, adding that Becky "certainly did not have to choose an illegal abortion, if that is what happened."

The Bells dismiss these questions, saying they are satisfied with the autopsy that indicated complications from a "botched" abortion as the cause of their daughter's death.

Meanwhile, they hope that through their involvement in the fund's campaign they can counterbalance the oppressive weight of their daughter's death.

"I don't want her lying in that grave for nothing," Karen Bell said.

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