Wednesday, June 29, 2022

     The gym at Greenbriar School is large, cool, dim, new. And nearly empty Tuesday morning, Election Day for a midterm — known for low turnout — primary, which are historically even lower. Two election judges, one a teenager too young to vote but who wants to be involved. Hope for the future.
     Of course, I’m here, at the Northbrook elementary my kids attended. I never miss an election. Demographics help explain why.
     I’m in the sweet spot of people who benefit most from our system: white, older, in the top 10% of household income, barely. I fly the flag, stand for the pledge and believe in the promise of America no matter how many times that promise is revealed as a lie.
     So why bother voting?
     That was the traditional question long before Donald Trump spent years taking a pickax to public trust in elections. Millions of Americans — a block equal in size to voters in either party — vote by not voting, a silent shrug that says, “What does it matter, Democrat or Republican?”
     Voting sure mattered in 2016, when a few swing states sent us crashing into the abyss of Trumpism triumphant. Voting also mattered in 2020, maybe. Depending on whether our brush with autocracy was thwarted or merely delayed.
     Voting matters now in Illinois, a blue island in a sea of red states. A state where women enjoy safe reproductive freedom ,while Indiana and Missouri and Iowa drag them kicking and screaming back to the dark ages.
     As important as the 2020 presidential election was, only 66.9% of those eligible cast ballots. With a plague raging and a sociopath in the White House, a third of America yawned, shrugged and couldn’t be bothered.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Flashback 1987: Abortion counseling can differ

Barbara Kruger (Art Institute of Chicago)
Last week, the New York Times ran a story on its front page about Christian zealots who disguise themselves as abortion counseling services to lure in unsuspecting women who fear they might be pregnant so they can harangue them about keeping their babies.
     This loathsome practice particularly resonated with me because I wrote about the exact situation more than 35 years ago. We've been fighting this battle so long ... 
      The odd thing about this story is, I was less than a month on the job, still worked for the features section, on the staff of the Adviser, the weekly insert giving readers tips on cleaning their garages and keeping Japanese beetles off their lawns.
     What I remember most, besides the shamefully anodyne headline my timid editor gave it, is that Scott Powers, then the features editor, hauled me in his office afterward and dressed me down — I had done some reporting by visiting the sham centers, accompanied by a staffer from the organization posing as my girlfriend. This is exactly the sort of thing that caused us to lose the Pulitzer over the Mirage Tavern, he said. Of course, doing the story is what made us even considered. I was unmoved and felt, then and now, it was not bad initiative for a 26-year-old a few weeks after being hired.  A short time later I moved to cityside.

     Late last July, Cathy Berndtson thought she was pregnant. She went to the Women's Center on Lawrence Avenue for a free pregnancy test.
     "I wanted to be pregnant," she said. "I wanted this free test because I was too impatient to wait two weeks for my next hospital appointment to find out."
     Berndtson gave a urine sample, and was told it would take a half hour for the results to be ready. While she waited, she was asked to see a film.
     "They didn't say what kind of film it was," she said. The film turned out to be about abortion, with graphic photos of bloody fetuses in white plastic pails. It stressed the physical danger and moral criminality of abortion, how it can lead to sterility and suicide.
     "I was appalled — it was pretty disgusting," Berndtson said. "I watched out of curiosity. They didn't have any facilities for children, so my daughter, who was 2 1/2 at the time, was with me. I tried to keep her from watching it."
     Berndtson had stumbled into one of eight bogus abortion counseling centers in the city, according to Women Organized for Reproductive Choice, a women's group that monitors abortion centers.
     The clinics are listed in the Yellow Pages alongside regular abortion counseling centers, but their purpose is to promote the pro-life philosophies of the Christian groups that run them, using the lure of free pregnancy tests to draw women in.their anti-abortion stance ("Someday your child will thank you for giving him (or her) the gift of life," a Birthright ad reads).
     "We don't oppose groups that are upfront about it," she said. "What we are opposed to are groups that advertise themselves as abortion counselors — that implies they will give you information about the full range of services, not coerce the woman into continuing her pregnancy."
     The eight centers — the Women's Centers at 5116 N. Cicero and 2334 W. Lawrence; Aid for Women centers at 8 S. Michigan and 730 Waukegan, Deerfield; Crisis Pregnancy Center, 6416 N. Western; Uptown Crisis Pregnancy, 939 W. Wilson; Loop Crisis Pregnancy Center, 185 N. Wabash; Southside Crisis Pregnancy Center, 7905 S. Cicero, and Crisis Pregnancy Services of DuPage County, 890 E. Roosevelt, Lombard — were all visited by WORC investigators.
     The WORC investigation found that all eight centers misrepresent the time it takes for the test, which can be purchased in any drugstore and costs $6 at Planned Parenthood. Results are usually provided in two to three minutes, but the clinics all claimed the test took up to an hour, to provide an excuse for showing women a film or slide show.
     All the clinics are listed in the phone book under "Birth Control Information" although none of them gives information about birth control. One center offered a WORC investigator the loan of baby clothes and a crib, while the Crisis Prevention Center in Berwyn presented a tiny baby jacket as a parting gift.
     When a couple asked about forms of contraception, a counselor at the Women's Center on Cicero displayed a chart that showed the medical risks of all forms of contraception, including condoms, as well as their cost projected over a 30-year period. She then asked them to think seriously about chastity.
     "It's basically emotional abuse," said Catherine Christeller of WORC. "They want women to feel pain, they want women to be upset. A very young woman who doesn't have a lot of information on abortion is upset enough about being pregnant. This could be very disturbing. Even if she isn't pregnant, none of these places provide birth control counseling, including prevention of AIDS, because these people feel the woman should not be having sex, period."
     Besides emotional stress, Christeller said, the clinics act to delay a decision that women already tend to put off, making the abortion process more dangerous and expensive.
     The ads for such clinics usually emphasize free pregnancy testing. Although phrases such as "low-cost plans" or "excellent safety record" might be included to throw people off, WORC said, the ads will not list specific medical practices, such as "gynecological services," or "tubal ligations."
     Both WORC and Planned Parenthood suggested the following strategy: When making an appointment on the phone, ask directly if the clinic provides contraceptives, or if it will refer you to an abortion clinic. If the answer is evasive — "We provide contraception information," or "We will give you information about abortion services" — then be wary. Finally, ask how long the test will take. If the answer is anything longer than five minutes, you should suspect it's a bogus clinic.
     "I felt I was led there under false pretenses," said Berndtson, who is about to have her second child. "I just wanted the free test — I could have been a teenager, already traumatized thinking I was pregnant, only to have someone show me this terrible film. I would have rather waited the two weeks and paid for it."
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 19, 1987

Monday, June 27, 2022

How many fetuses can dance on a pin?

     There is an old joke: The French national railroad did a safety study and, after discovering that most accidents involve the last car on a train, removed all the cabooses.
     If that doesn’t register, see, there’s always a last car on a train, and taking off the caboose merely shifts which car is last.
     That works for first place, too. Thus Ken Griffin, Illinois’ richest man, relocating to Miami doesn’t deprive Illinois of a richest man, merely transfers the honorific to ... Neil Bluhm, the casino magnate.
     Friday I contacted Bluhm through Walton Street Capital, but they didn’t think he’d reply.
     “I doubt it (I know that I would not!),” wrote one of his partners. “But I have forwarded your note to him in the unlikely event that he does.”
     Figuring I could do better, I phoned a mutual friend, someone who’d flown aboard Bluhm’s jet — quite the brag in the early 2000s.
     At that moment, word broke the U.S. Supreme Court has made obstetrics the hot issue in American politics for the next decade.
     Suddenly, the new richest man in Illinois didn’t seem interesting anymore. My friend had something else on his mind.
     Those coat hangers, he said, they’re just a symbol. Nobody ever really died from trying to give themselves an abortion with a coat hanger.
     I believe they have, I replied, my fingers already on the keyboard. Countless.
     He didn’t think so. I called up a 2001 interview with Dr. Quentin Young, who in 1948 was a resident at Cook County Hospital’s so-called septic OB ward.
     “A euphemism for women who had been damaged in self-induced or criminal abortions,” he told me then. “Of course, all abortions were criminal then.”

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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Flashback 2004: How many people are gay?

Louvre Museum
     Today is the Pride Parade. I'll be staying home — crowds. But I've written many pieces to mark the occasion over the years, including this one, from 2004, when I ask the seemingly simple question: How many LGBTQ people are there? 

     Gay people are everywhere. An Urban Institute study of data from the 2000 U.S. census found same-sex couples living in 99.3 percent of the counties nationwide. In Illinois, all 102 counties have gay couples living in them, as do 636 of the largest 688 Illinois cities, towns and villages. And while gays are thought of as being concentrated in Chicago's Halsted Street Boys Town, the fact is they live in every neighborhood of the city, practically on every street.
     They show up in concentrations you might not expect: For instance, 9 percent of Chicago Public Schools high school students said they were gay in a survey this year.
     Perhaps. The actual number could be less — or more. A reliable approximation of the number of homosexuals in society has long bedeviled researchers, who come up with statistics ranging from half of 1 percent — the number of couples living together who tell the census they are of the same sex — to 21 percent, the share of the population Harvard researchers found who reported having homosexual urges or experiences after the age of 15.
     "Estimating the size of the gay population is an incredibly difficult number [to find]," said Gary J. Gates, a researcher at the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute, who conducted the census study.
     These numbers are not the stuff of dry sociology. With the issue of gay marriage being hotly debated nationwide, numbers are seen as important political allies. The 350,000 or so people expected to march in or watch Sunday's Pride Parade are an indication of societal strength and acceptance, as are presence in businesses and on voter registration lists.
     Thus, not only are the numbers affected by who is being considered, but by who is doing the considering. Gay activists, for instance, tend to embrace a figure of 10 percent — the number put forward by the landmark Kinsey studies of human sexuality in the 1940s.
     Social conservatives tend to find fault with those numbers — Kinsey's methodology was later criticized as flawed — and they support subsequent researchers who found a figure closer to 3 percent. A comprehensive 1994 University of Chicago study found that 2.8 percent of American adults are gay. And Gates' study, which uses census data, concluded the nationwide figure is between 2.8 percent and 3.5 percent, depending on what percentage of gays conceal their identity.
     That becomes a particularly important issue when dealing with students — how many are too intimidated to even truthfully answer a confidential survey — or how many are uncertain or even joking.
"Les Baigneuses," Renoir (Musee d'Orsay)
     The 9 percent number for the CPS comes from a survey funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Every other year since 1991, the survey has asked high school students 87 questions about "risky" behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use. This year, for the first time, students were asked two questions about sexuality. One was whether they had had sexual intercourse — 55.1 percent said yes — and the other was: "Which of the following best describes you a) heterosexual (straight) b. gay or lesbian, c) bisexual and d) not sure.
     Almost one in 10 answered b, c or d. And while that figure might seem high, it doesn't to educators.
     "I wasn't surprised," said schools CEO Arne Duncan. "That was my sense, 9 or 10 percent."
     "It could be more," said Shannon Kenney, consultant to the Coalition for Education on Sexual Orientation and project director for the Mental Health Association of Illinois. "Being gay is such a stigma that not everyone self-identifies."
     The truth is that we just don't know how many people are gay.
      "We know that this is very, very underreported because a lot of people aren't going to report that they're in a same-sex household," said Rick Garcia, a longtime gay activist here. "You're not tapping into African-American couples, you're not tapping into Latino couples, you're not tapping into Asian couples. They're not going to tell governmental bodies much of anything."
     A few other trends are worth noting. There seem to be twice as many homosexual men as women. And as with any major city, Chicago has a higher concentration of gays than the nation as a whole — perhaps two or three times the national average, drawn to the city for its vibrant gay community and the anonymity a city offers.
     Gates said what was most important in his study was not the percentage of the population that is gay but how widely distributed gays are and how, for instance, one quarter of gay couples are raising children and those couples tend to live, not in gay communities, but in communities where there are other families.
     While gay people have been increasingly accepted into mainstream society, the struggle for rights is bound to be connected to their prevalence in society.
     "If the question is of discrimination and civil rights, it is not important for a group to be numerically large if you believe in fairness," Gates said. "It shouldn't matter in the end how many people are being discriminated against. It should matter that discrimination is wrong."
              — Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 27, 2004

Saturday, June 25, 2022

North Shore Notes: Abortion

Photo by Caren Jeskey
   Friday was a grim day for Americans who care about freedom. Personally, I took comfort in the belief that going back into the past is not indeed possible, no matter how passionately fundamentalists try. That most people do not want to live in a theocracy where their most intimate life choices are dictated by religious fanatics. And that, as always, those with totalitarian impulses overplay their hand. Yes, this will not stand. But that reversal is years away, and I felt glad I wasn't obligated to sit down and write something.
     North Shore Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey was, however, and in her typical reliability and professionalism did not disappoint. Her report is understandably brief and blunt, reflecting a numb day that was a shock though not a surprise.

By Caren Jeskey 

     "Good ideas come from everywhere. It's more important to recognize a good idea than to author it.” — Jeanne Gang

     A friend lives on Randolph near the lake, and I am lucky to be enjoying her home (and adorable, tiny pooch named Holly after Mrs. Golightly) while she takes a long weekend away. Jeanne Gang’s Vista Tower fills the window in front of me, and her Aqua Tower also adorns the picturesque frame. Whenever I see Gang's buildings I marvel at the empowered woman who made them happen. A modern day superhero. Aqua Tower was the tallest woman-designed building in the world at the time it was constructed in 2007. Her buildings blend in perfectly with Chicago's skyline, and though they are taller than the other buildings around here, they are elegantly understated and delightful to behold. Her structures are eco-friendly with recycled materials and rooftop prairies and gardens. Gang's Harvard trained eye is a great gift to our city.
     At the same time that women's power is being supported in many ways, today we face the day after Roe v. Wade was overturned despite the fact that “Gallup polls show Americans’ support for abortion in all or most cases at 80% in May 2021, only sightly higher than in 1975 (76%), and the Pew Research Center finds 59% of adults believe abortion should be legal.” I called a friend yesterday afternoon and she greeted me in tears. “Did you hear?" Yes, I’ve heard. Lately I’ve been feeling like I do not have the bandwidth to deal with the larger issues our country is facing, then I recall that I have to conjure up the will to care.
     When we were in our late teens, or perhaps early 20's, another friend and I were invited to a Thanksgiving gala hosted by an important person. I can’t say who it was, since I have to be mindful about legal repercussions, so I'll suffice it to say that we were at a party that only a privileged few Illinoisans were invited to. During the dinner and subsequent party, a prominent young man became enamored with my friend, and she with him. They found a way to “see” each other- this word conjures up puritanical suppression of sexuality à la the play Spring Awakening (my first COVID play) that I saw this past Spring at Porchlight. In this heavy and tragic performance, secrecy, shame, and denial killed 2 young people and traumatized others.
     After one long date, my friend became impregnated with her suitor's child. She really liked him but at that point he was done with her. Before she could even catch her breath, he had arranged for an abortion. He was a monied financier, she was a nothing in comparison at that time, as far as privilege was concerned. She felt she had no choice. After the mandated abortion she was dropped off at my parent's house where I was living. She came up to my bed and passed out from exhaustion. She slept off the physically and emotionally taxing removal of the embryo from her womb. It was not yet a fetus, which happens at eight weeks.
     I wonder what her life would look like today, had this person been truly interested in the gem of a woman she is — stunning, brilliant, and now very successful- and they had developed more of a relationship?
     Now we can all be worried about the women who are going to be harmed during back-alley abortions on top of everything else this decade has cursed us with. It's time to help in any way we can. Vote, march, donate money to help women get to Illinois and other safe havens when they need it. And try to stay out of the line of fire of the armed haters.

Friday, June 24, 2022

After your abortion, grandma might sue you


"Government Bureau," by George Tooker (Guggenheim Museum)

     Now that the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, a shoe that's been expected to drop since early May when a draft opinion spiking the 1973 decision was leaked, let’s have a brief pop quiz:
     Question: What’s the really bad part about reversing Roe v. Wade?
     If you answered something like, “denying American women the right to make their own reproductive decisions, a freedom enjoyed for the past 50 years and one extended to most women around the globe,” I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.
     That’s just the bad part.
     The really bad part, in my estimation — and, yes, I am a man, so my view might be skewed — is the police state that will be quickly set up to punish not only doctors who provide abortions but anybody who facilitates an abortion — with one notable exception.
     But don’t take my word for it.
     Take a look at the model law prepared by the National Right to Life Committee. Banning abortion is only the start.
     “Current realities require a much more robust enforcement regime than just reliance on criminal penalties,” the draft notes. Waiting to snag offenders isn’t enough. States need “RICO-style laws” that turn whisking Molly across the border into Illinois to fix her “little problem” into a criminal conspiracy.
     Where to begin? The fact that a girl is 11 years old doesn’t matter. (That’s not a random number. It’s the age of a girl who became pregnant after being raped in Brazil, where abortion is illegal. She’s now confined by a judge so she can’t have an abortion.) Otherwise: ”We recommend prohibiting abortion except to prevent the death of the pregnant woman.”
     They’re talking about physical peril, period.
     “Psychological or emotional conditions” are deliberately excluded because, well, suck it up, sister, we’re not falling for that touchy-feely gobbledygook.
     The law recommends an abortion be a Level 2 felony. In Indiana, where the firm drafting the law is based, that’s on par with voluntary manslaughter, child sex trafficking and kidnapping, with prison sentences of from 10 to 30 years.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

A note on sources

     A reporter is only as good as his (or her) sources. Usually, that means the contacts that he (or she, or, of late, they) has (or, in the latter case, have) developed, allies who will pick up the phone or, better, call unprompted and pass along some glowing shred of news.
     People (whew, that's easier) have never been my strong suit. But I do have a close relationship with books, which are also sources. Over the years there are certain dependables that I go to when I need a quick, in-depth education. 
     For instance, the calendar drives a considerable amount of journalism, and reporters often find themselves confronted with finding a new spin on a shopworn holiday, and if I'm tryin to fill a blank page about, oh, Valentine's Day, Jack Santino's "All Around the Year: Holidays & Celebrations in American Life" (1994: University of Illinois Press) has for decades offered a fresh observation or approach I wouldn't think of on my own. 
     For instance, Santino noted that the holiday dedicated to romance isn't just dropped randomly into the calendar. It mirrors Halloween. In a 1997 column on Valentine's Day, I quoted him: 
      "Halloween is approximately seven weeks before the winter solstice and marks the progression into the darkest period of the year," he writes. "Valentine's Day is about seven weeks after it and marks the progression out of winter and into spring." Santino points out that Halloween imagery is all about harvested crops and death, while Valentine's Day is flowers and romance and life."
     Another essential volume in any home reference library is "Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements," by John Emsley (2001: Oxford). It's that rarest reference that can be read cover-to-cover, for pleasure and I know that no quick dive into a particular metal or gas or whatever done with the Encyclopedia Britannica or online, will come close to the detail and fascination Emsley has already concisely assembled.
     Herein lies the trouble. If what I need is all right there, the temptation is to quickly gather up the nuggets, share them with the eager public, and skip giving the big public thanks to Emsley.
     That's what I did in my manhole cover story in the paper Sunday. Crediting him for the fact that iron is the fourth most common element in the universe seemed unnecessary — he didn't invent that fact, but got it from somewhere himself — and, more to the point, also took another 13 words in a story already three times the usual length of a column.
     Of course, nothing was copied. But ideas were re-worked. For instance, he writes of iron: "In effect it is the 'ash' of the nuclear burning process; once the core of a star has become mainly iron, that star has run out of its primary source of energy." Which I converted, through my own reductive process, into "Iron is, in essence, star ash."
     Now that is laudable condensation, and nobody was ever going to accuse me of plagiarism, the way a reader once sincerely did when I ended a column, "Isn't it pretty to think so?" the concluding line of "The Sun Also Rises" (I wrote back that I assumed my readers are familiar with the line, asking, "If I ended with "Thou shalt not kill" would you accuse me of ripping off the Bible?")
     But as reader after reader singled out that ash line to compliment me, a definite taste of ashes began forming in my mouth. I felt like I was taking a bow for Emsley's performance, and though I should wave the flag for his book.
     You can buy it here. It'll set you back $25 — it's lack of deep discount a reflection of just how useful a resource it remains. Not only is "Nature's Building Blocks" fascinating to read, with the inside scoop on the elements from actinium to zirconium, but it includes the lyrics to the Tom Lehrer song and an essay on the periodic table. Emsley, a British science writer, now 84, cleverly divides each elemental essay in "Human Element," and "Medical Element," "Economic Element" and "Environmental Element" and so on, including an "Element of Surprise" that bring in some cool facts out of left field. (Though he does despair at thulium, throwing up his hands with, "What is surprising about thulium is that, unlike the other rare-earth elements, there is nothing at all surprising about it... This is probably due to its rarity and cost, which may have deterred people from investigating it or seeking uses for it.")
     But I do the book an injustice ending with a rare lacuna. In the essay on fluorine, the element of surprise offers a brief history and explanation of Teflon, the coating made from poly(tetrafluoroethene). "Contrary to popular belief," Emsley writes, "it was not space exploration that led to the development of the non-stick frying pan, but the other way round." But I won't quote too much of it here. Read the book yourself.