The Last Voice for Choice

Carole Ashkinaze is no longer needed in Chicago to take Carol Moseley Braun seriously as a Senate candidate, though she was the city’s first columnist to do so. She isn’t needed to argue that as a matter of dignity the Dickson Mounds Indian burial grounds should be sealed from tourists; Governor Edgar has sealed them. And there’s no need for another column under her byline pleading for a new roof for the Woodson Regional Library on the south side; the leaky old roof was finally replaced.

Ashkinaze mentioned those topics to us in a conversation last week, just before she left town, to demonstrate that she didn’t always write about abortion. Even so, abortion became the subject of her three-a-week columns more often than she could have imagined three years ago when she arrived from Atlanta to become the Sun-Times’s liberal-Jewish-feminist voice. She discovered a void. Ashkinaze is prochoice. And every other editorial columnist in Chicago who writes steadily about abortion does so to assail it.

The Sun-Times’s Dennis Byrne and the Tribune’s Stephen Chapman and Joan Beck are quick to identify the exaggerations, misrepresentations, and hypocrisies that issue from advocates of abortion rights, to argue for further limits on those rights, and to question the moral and legal premises of Roe v. Wade. Legal abortion had one sturdy Chicago defender, Ashkinaze, and now that she’s gone back to Atlanta it has none. So a Carole Ashkinaze is needed very much.

In her farewell column, published August 23, Ashkinaze described Chicago as she’d found it: “Our town’s racial and ethnic boundaries were straining at the seams. Its schools were on the brink of disaster. Its infant mortality rates rivaled those of Third World nations. It seemed full of invisible people. Chicago was their town, too, but it was just beginning to feel their behind-the-scenes machinations, gentle persuasions and rage. Though renowned for the fearlessness of its journalism, it had more than its share of columnists who wanted to slow the rate of change, as far as women and families were concerned. I had a chance to write a different kind of column, and I jumped at it.”

Hoping she’d name names, we asked Ashkinaze to elaborate. “I don’t think I need to,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of good, solid conservative writing in this town, and I just positioned myself in a different place, especially as far as women are concerned.

“I think that the degree of resistance from some segments of the community to any kind of prochoice writing about abortion said a lot about how little ground had been broken in the past. Let’s face it–this is a fiercely Catholic town, and it’s a strongly felt religious issue as well as political issue and intellectual issue for a lot of people.”

Perhaps thickheadedly, we refuse to believe that about abortion there is no middle ground. We told Ashkinaze that we fault her column-writing opponents for showing so little interest in finding a middle ground, and she replied that she was as guilty as they are.

“I think the problem is that for some people it is a matter of faith and for others it is a matter of choice, it’s a matter of individual liberty, of civil rights. You’re not going to convince people who believe abortion is murder as a matter of faith that it’s OK for some people to murder, and you can’t convince people who believe they’re acting rationally and consistent with the human values framed in the Constitution of somebody else’s religious dictates. So a true meeting of the minds will be quite difficult. I also think as a prochoicer and a woman that any attempt at balancing ‘abortion is murder’ with ‘abortion is my right’ will inevitably be weighted on the side of the prolifers, because if abortion is fettered and restricted it isn’t a right. A woman can’t do what she wishes to do with her own body.

“I’ll tell you something else,” she went on. “I never set out to convert people, to change people’s minds about abortion. Abortion is one of those things when you write about it you’re writing for two camps whose minds are pretty well made up. What I tried to do in my column is present a point of view that is very seldom presented among Chicago columnists. I think what I did, I did over and over again until it put some people’s teeth on edge. But somebody had to do that. There are people on the other side doing it all the time.”

Did you feel uncomfortable at the Sun-Times? we asked her.

“Sure,” she said. “But not uncomfortable enough to stop.”

When her three-year contract expired, Ashkinaze and the Sun-Times parted company by mutual consent. She’s gone back to Atlanta to take on a writing assignment for the Carter Center’s massive war on local poverty, the Atlanta Project, that will occupy her for the next three months or so. Her future beyond that is unclear.

We don’t intend to fault the newspaper that hired Ashkinaze in the first place because no one is there who writes like her just now. (If the crime is diminishing women, a bigger culprit is the Tribune, where Joan Beck just retired from the editorial board–though she’ll still write an occasional column–and was replaced by John McCarron, meaning that ten of the Tribune’s 12 board members are now men.) Even so, a conspicuous absence is most conspicuous in the place where yesterday a presence flourished, and the absence of any op-ed writer in Chicago willing to champion choice is preposterous.

At least two prochoice Sun-Times women–“families” beat writer Leslie Baldacci and “workplace” writer Cindy Richards–have declared an interest in taking over from Ashkinaze. There have been other inquiries from outside the paper.

Do you feel an obligation to replace her with someone prochoice? we asked editor Dennis Britton. “No,” he said. With a woman? we wondered. “That’s an ongoing decision that has not been made,” he said.

We’d told Baldacci we were going to talk to her editors.

“Tell them we need a broad,” she said.

Sports Pages: No Queers Allowed

The Chicago Smelts put us on notice several days before last month’s Sun-Times Triathlon. The Smelts had a hunch the Sun-Times would screw up coverage of the swim team’s 162-person contingent, and they wanted us standing by.

The Smelts–Chicago’s (Mostly) Gay and Lesbian Swim Team–wanted to demonstrate gay prowess in mainstream athletics. Led by Bruce Hayes, a gold medalist in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the 1984 Olympic Games, the Smelts could see that their massive participation in the triathlon would make an interesting angle for a prerace story–if the Sun-Times wanted to touch it.

Reporter Dan Bickley interviewed Smelts spokesman Russ Klettke and wrote a couple of paragraphs. The first graph, mentioning Hayes and the Smelts, made the paper. The second graph, explaining who the Smelts were, did not. Bickley supposes the graph was cut for space. Sports editor Rick Jaffe told us he didn’t know what happened to it, but he guessed some unidentified deskman must have decided the information was “irrelevant” to the event.

Hayes’s relay team, the Fabulous Tri-Sisters, won the men’s open relay by more than four minutes. Another Smelts entry, the Quick Queers, finished third in the same relay. We weren’t at the awards ceremony, but Klettke tells us that though the name of the Fabulous Tri-Sisters was announced in its entirety (in fact the announcer asked a team member to explain the bizarre moniker), third place was given to “the Quick team.” The full page of results in the early edition of the next morning’s Sun-Times listed the Quick Queers, but by the final edition they’d become the “Quick Q’s.”

“I’m sure,” says Jaffe, “the editor who did that was trying to avoid offending somebody.”

Smelt John Knight, a lawyer, called to point out the mistake. He says an unidentified deskman responded, “Oh, that’s not a mistake. This is a family newspaper.” The sports desk phone continued to ring, and by the time Dave Widmer, who’d run the third leg for the Queers, got through, the deskman wasn’t as genial. “He said, “We’re aware of the problem and we’re looking into it,’ and hung up.” Widmer called back and asked for Jaffe. “He was much more open to listening to me.”

“I’m not a real militant person,” says Widmer, “but one of our objectives besides competing and doing well was to come up with a name with some shock appeal to demonstrate the gay community’s diversity. We were thinking it’s good for Joe Sixpack to see we’re out there pretty competitive and can kick their butt. By choosing to edit our name, they’re requiring us to be a silent minority.”

Jaffe saw the point. The next day the Sun-Times ran a correction, hailing the Quick Queers by their full name and leaving us with nothing much to huff at the paper about.

But Not Too Seriously, Folks…

Last week we amused ourself by discussing a new book in terms of its philosophical content. In so doing we honored, by exaggeration, the spirit in which author Neil Steinberg examined his subject–college pranks. Probably lost in our discussion was the good news that Steinberg’s If at All Possible, Involve a Cow is a snappy collection of very funny stories. Although Steinberg does commit thought, it is to reach the happy conclusion that capery is vital to a well-lived adolescence.