A Tale of Two Abortions

By Christina Dunigan
Featured Rightgrrl March 1999
August 15, 1999

"They told me I had to get down to St. Luke's right away, that Dawn was at that hospital fighting for her life."

It's the call every parent dreads. Ruth Ravenell was no exception. Her 13-year-old daughter, Dawn, was active in the church where both her parents were ministers. The family sang Gospel songs together. Dawn was a dream child -- the kid who did her homework without being told, who liked to surprise her mother by cleaning the house. She was what's known in the vernacular as "a good girl."

"I was going, 'How can she be fighting for her life? She left for school this morning, looking healthy, never been sick.'"

What Ruth didn't know was that Dawn had slipped off her pedestal, had engaged in a dalliance with a 15-year-old Romeo. And when she learned that she was pregnant, she knew her parents would be crushed. She went to a teacher for advice. The teacher and a counselor arranged to take care of the whole mess so that Dawn's parents would never have to know. The boyfriend borrowed a credit card from a relative to pay for the risky, expensive, second-trimester abortion.

The counselor at Eastern Women's Center had seen how frightened Dawn was, and had marked on her chart that she should be treated with "tender loving care." But abortionist Alan Kline had his own ideas about what constituted "tender loving care." He didn't administer enough anesthesia to get the frightened child through the entire procedure. She began to cough, vomit, and choke. Kline put a breathing tube in Dawn's throat, put her aside, and left her unattended to lapse into a coma. Dawn was eventually rushed to the hospital, where it finally occurred to somebody to do the obvious: call Dawn's mother. "While I was there at the hospital -- they were doing tests -- I had to keep my hand pressed over my mouth to keep from screaming in horror. I kept going, 'This is all a bad dream. I am going to wake up and this will not have happened.'"

Day after day Dawn's family gathered at her bedside, talking to her, playing tapes of the family singing together, trying to lure her back from the brink of death -- all to no avail. Dawn died three weeks after her abortion, without ever having regained consciousness.

The family sued and won, but as the New York Post headline pointed out, "$1.2M Won't Bring Her Back." The story featured a photo of Dawn at her junior high graduation, in cap and gown, gazing out smiling at a future she would never have. The photo revealed what the family had lost -- and raised the spectre of why some people chose to ignore Dawn's death. Dawn Ravenell was a thick-lipped, kinky-haired, flat-nosed, dark-skinned Black girl. In some circles, evidently, that kind of thing matters.

Maybe that's a cynical explanation. But there must be some reason liberals have their panties in a knot over the death of Becky Bell while the death of Dawn Ravenell barely elicits a yawn.

Becky Bell was a pretty girl -- blonde hair, blue eyes, looking every inch a cheerleader. After a pregnancy scare, her parents told her that if she ever did that to them again, they'd throw her out of the house. So when 17-year-old Becky learned that she really was pregnant, she turned to her best friend Heather for help. Together they explored her options. If Becky were to get an abortion in Indiana, she would have to tell her parents. After being threatened with being thrown out of the family home, Becky rejected that option. Perhaps Becky could drive to Kentucky for an abortion. Perhaps she could go to a home for unwed mothers in California. Becky seemed undecided.

Perhaps it was the stress of the pregnancy that knocked Becky off the wagon. She had been through drug detoxification already. But off to a party she went, to forget her troubles, be with the people she thought were her friends. Becky couldn't even remember what drugs she did at the party. She passed out in her own vomit. That's probably where the pneumonia got started.

Becky struggled with the pneumonia, afraid to go to the doctor for fear of exposing the pregnancy. But, perhaps in an attempt to strengthen her to fight the ravaging infection in her lungs, Becky's body rejected her unborn baby. Becky started to miscarry. Seeing the blood, Becky evidently figured that the pregnancy was over and all signs of it gone. She told her parents how sick she was. They rushed her to the hospital. After the doctor had been working on Becky for a while, he told her mother he wasn't sure if he could save the baby. Karen Bell recalled that she told the doctor, "Never mind that baby! Save my baby!"

But the pneumonia, the same virulent strain that had claimed the life of Muppet creator Jim Henson, killed Becky. For some obscure reason, someone in the coroner's office put "septic abortion" on the cover sheet of Becky's autopsy report.

Desperate to find some meaning in their daughter's death, the Bells latched onto the term, "septic abortion." Perhaps, like most laymen, they didn't realize that a miscarriage is a form of abortion -- what's called a "spontaneous abortion." That still leaves the mystery of where the work "septic" came from, since Becky's reproductive tract was healthy and free of injury or infection. But however the idea arose, Becky's family decided that Becky must have sought an illegal abortion. Abortion advocates caught wind of the story and recruited the Bells as spokesmen against parental involvement laws.

Over the years, the story has become more and more sanitized. Becky's drug use, her previous pregnancy scare, the fact that her parents had threatened her, fell aside. The story became an eerie parody of the Dawn Ravenell story. In the pro-choice version, Becky was the carefree, happy child who never gave her parents any worries. Becky sought an abortion to avoid disappointing her parents, but was stymied by parental involvement laws. Becky procured any one of a variety of amateur abortions. (Here the story gets fuzzy, and different organizations tell different tales -- attempts to cause a miscarriage with drugs, a criminal abortionist, Becky's own hand wielding a coat hanger -- none of which had any evidence to support them.) The abortion started an infection in her uterus. The infection traveled to Becky's lungs and killed her. "She died because of a law," pro-choicers chant. The girl who should have become a poster child for saying "No" to drugs became the poster child for saying "Yes" to clandestine teenage abortions.

Now, it's entirely possible that the reason pro-choicers latched onto Becky's death while ignoring Dawn's has nothing to do with race. It could be that had Becky been Black, she'd still have been good for some political leverage. But one thing is clear: concern for the lives and well-being of actual teenagers is the last thing from abortion advocates' minds. How do we know this? Because even the pro-abortion Centers for Disease Control noted that teenagers who have secret abortions are at high risk of serious complications or even death because they ignore signs of danger, trying to keep their parents from learning of the abortions. Teens whose parents are aware of the abortion can seek medical care earlier and are more likely to avoid hysterectomy, colostomy, and death. Claims that teens only keep abortions secret from their parents when they fear abuse ring hollow. After all, pro-life pregnancy centers are able to help their teenage clients tell their parents. And if the girl legitimately fears for her safety or her life, the case should be referred to child protective services. To take the girl's money, kill her baby, and return her to an abusive home hardly seems to be the action of caring individuals.

Even with parental involvement, abortions will continue to kill teenagers. Seventeen-year-old Teresa Causey was clutching her mother's hand when she died on the abortion table, gasping, "Oh, mama, mama, it hurts so much!" Erna Fisher's mother was holding her hand when she choked to death on her own vomit on the abortion table. So clearly, involving teenager's parents isn't a panacea. But when teens know that their parents will have to be involved in their abortion decisions, fewer of them risk pregnancy to begin with. Fewer teens risking pregnancy means fewer teens risking abortion. Parental involvement means that those teens that do resort to abortion will have no need to fear reporting complications to their parents. Fewer teens at risk, and a lower risk for those teens who do gamble their lives on the abortion table, will mean fewer Ruth Ravenells choking back silent screams at their daughters' deathbeds. How anybody could oppose this is anybody's guess. Maybe it's the race issue: after all, although only a quarter of abortions are performed on Blacks, fully half of legal abortion deaths happen to Black women and girls. Maybe there's an elitist element: legal abortion deaths don't happen often in the white-bread world of suburbia -- they tend to strike the denizens of slums and trailer parks. Maybe it's the politics. Maybe it's a combination of the three.

While Becky Bell's death was indeed tragic, it had nothing to do with abortion. Becky died because of her drug use. Clearly, the issue of teen drug use needs to be addressed. Meanwhile, teenagers continue to die from legal abortions while pro-choice advocates whistle past the graveyard.

There has to be some explanation of why there is all this hue and cry over a girl who died of an imaginary abortion, and so much indifference to girls who die from real abortions. I'm still waiting for the pro-choice to explain what the real reason is.

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This article copyright © 1999 by Christina Dunigan and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.