Thursday, May 11, 2006

George vs. George: Compare and contrast

published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

President George W. Bush is the third man named George to hold the head office of our republic, after his father and George Washington. That makes him, effectively, President George III. The last time our country was ruled by a George III, the American colonists undertook a years-long bloody struggle to overthrow him. Let’s compare and contrast today’s George with the one we got rid of in 1782.

King George III

President George III

He ran up the national debt far beyond the country’s ability to pay, spending millions on occupation of faraway lands (the American colonies in particular), on entangling wars (against France and Spain), and in government subsidies to major corporations (especially the East India Company).

H e ran up the national debt far beyond the country’s ability to pay, spending billions on occupation of faraway lands (Iraq and Afghanistan in particular), on entangling wars (against Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban), and in government tax breaks and overpayments for services to major corporations (especially Enron and Halliburton).

He turned over administration of a vast Asian country to a private company. (India was overseen almost exclusively by the corporate officers of the East India Company.)

He turned over logistics support and some administration of a vast military operation to private companies. (Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown & Root are the major operators of US military bases and outposts around the globe.)

He was roundly criticized by political opponents for attempting to expand the authority of the monarchy well beyond its traditional role. He was roundly criticized by political opponents — and members of his own party — for attempting to expand the authority of the presidency well beyond its constitutional role.
He donated thousands of books to the public, to start a national library. He instituted (then failed to fully fund) an expensive, overarching, nationwide education-reform plan, which has yet to show any positive results.
He was a serious student of science, including having his own astronomical observatory. He often rejected scientific arguments in favor of religious or ideological beliefs, even as he increased funding to the National Science Foundation.

He was very interested in agriculture, and was called “Farmer George” for the time he spent on his royal estates.

H e did a lot of brush clearing on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, during his “vacations” and “working holidays” there.
He took a strong interest in government-policy debates, and had a sometimes-heavy hand in their outcomes. His orders and those of his deputies were often invoked to “edit” scientific reports issued by government agencies, to remove information that would support ideologies other than those held by the White House.

He was blamed for things, like the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend duties of 1767, that Parliament supported, undertook, and enforced, even though they were not always his ideas.

He was blamed for things, like the US refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol, that Congress supported and undertook on its own.
He paid for the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts. His budgets, even after cutbacks in Congress, have increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
He did not learn to read until age 11. He bragged about being a C student while at Yale University.

He imprisoned political opponents andfree-speech advocates.

His administration imprisoned American citizens without trial and investigated journalists for discovering inconvenient truths about his government.
His administration redefined the laws of treason to better control political opponents. H is administration redefined the laws of national security, freedom of information, and terrorism, and then used them to spy on and manipulate political opponents.

He was eventually deemed mentally unfit to rule, by reason of insanity.

Nothing official yet.

Sources UK Government History; BBC; Spartacus Encyclopedia of British History; Associated Press reports; US federal records.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Searching themselves: New book recounts the hunt for a woman and her killer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The authors of Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine had no way of knowing their book about the search for Amy St. Laurent, who went missing, as the news reports ominously intoned, “after a night out in the Old Port” in 2001, would come out at a time when the Portland City Council was talking about how to control the nightlife in the city’s busiest district.

They didn’t know that it would come out just a few months after the Old Port disappearances of two other people — one of whom, Lynn Moran, was later discovered dead of no apparent foul play in the water near the Portland ferry terminal; the other, Siphat Chau, is still missing.

Joseph K. Loughlin, who is credited on the book’s cover with his former rank of captain (he is now a deputy chief of the Portland police), and Kate Clark Flora, a former Maine assistant attorney general, don’t directly address the issue of partying in the Old Port, but their book offers a law-enforcement officer’s view of Wharf Street.

After a lovely description of the Old Port — “a mecca for tourists, who . . . flock to the interesting shops and restaurants” — even Flora’s prose gets shrill: “At night, it also becomes a destination for another crowd. . . . Underage teens looking for life beyond the empty streets of their small towns rub elbows with bikers, college students, drug dealers, gangsters, and young professionals. Fights are common. Crowd control is a perennial problem, especially late in the evening as the bars and clubs close, releasing thousands of patrons who are drunk, rowdy, and uninhibited onto the narrow old streets. At closing time, the swarm of bodies on Wharf Street can become so dense in the summer months the uniformed cops find it difficult to see each other when they’re only 10 to 15 feet apart.”

The book veers back and forth between two voices, Loughlin’s play-by-play first-person recollections of the investigation, and Flora’s reporter style, explaining, giving context, sharing an outsider’s wonder at the dedication police officers have to bring to their jobs. Loughlin's tone is authentic and gives an interesting picture of the demands of everyday police life. But Flora's tone misses. Having set the stage, she then waits more than 60 pages to point out that — oh yes! — Amy St. Laurent didn’t disappear in the midsummer crush on Wharf Street, but in late October, and voluntarily left a bar on Middle Street, a far less-busy place in terms of crowds at closing time, for a house on Brighton Avenue.

But despite these shortcomings, the book is a strong read, with a compelling set of elements — it is, after all, a true-crime book — that will bring readers closer to the story behind the news coverage.

Loughlin, who headed the city's detective bureau at the time, defers credit even from himself: “The real heroes in this book are” Danny Young and Scott Harakles, the lead detectives on the case, who spent sleepless nights and countless hours searching for St. Laurent and her killer.

But the most riveting moment, by far, in the entire volume, is the recounting, in tight counterpoint, by Flora and, most compellingly, Loughlin, of the discovery of St. Laurent’s body.

The disbelief is almost raw, even years later, as Loughlin says, “I still can’t believe we found her.”

The fulfillment of the title, easily the most voyeuristic chapter of the book, comes only halfway through the narrative. Finding Amy quickly turns to the subject of convicting Amy’s killer, Jeffrey Gorman, who was arrested while on the lam in Alabanma four days after St. Laurent's body was found, and the story becomes a cautionary tale, of sorts — warning would-be criminals about the vast resources police can draw on, most strikingly their personal commitment to doing the job.

But the book also, and particularly in the endnotes, serves as a warning to women. Loughlin notes that sexual predators are drugging drinks in the Old Port, as in most other club districts, and sexual assaults are common, though fatal ones are still rare.

Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine (University Press of New England) | Captain Joseph K. Loughlin + Kate Clark Flora | May 12, 7 pm | Books Etc, 38 Exchange St, Portland | 207.774.0626 | May 18, 7 pm | Kennebunk Public Library, 112 Main St, Kennebunk | 207.985.2173

Amy St. Laurent Foundation | Box 664, Yarmouth, ME 04096 | supporting Rape Aggression Defense training + other programs receives a portion of the book-sales proceeds

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Sidebar: Pill pressure and reproductive rights: What are they? What’s in them? What do they do?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are dozens of variations on the birth-control pill, all of which have differing amounts of various chemicals simulating two hormones: progesterone (produced by the placenta during pregnancy) and estrogen (produced by the ovaries as they mature and release eggs). The popularity of certain brands may be tied more to their manufacturers' advertising budgets than anything else; variations on the Pill are among the most heavily-marketed drugs in the marketplace.

Typically, the Pill works by tricking a woman’s body into thinking it is already pregnant. That prevents ovulation, in which an egg is released from an ovary into the fallopian tubes, ready to be fertilized and to implant in the uterine lining. The various types of pills also have differing side effects, and some are thought to have lower incidence of certain side effects. Side effects vary not only from pill type to pill type, but from woman to woman.

The major commercially available brands of birth-control pills range in level from 0.05 mg of a synthetic progesterone (levonorgestronel, in Triphasil, Tri-Levlen, and Trivora) to 3 mg of another (drospirenone, in Yasmin), and from no estrogen at all (in Ortho Micronor and DepoSubQ-Provera, also called “the shot”) to 0.05 mg ethinyl estradiol (in Necon 1/50, Norinyl 1/50, Ortho-Novum 1/50, and Ovcon-50). Those with no estrogen, also known as “progesterone-only” pills, generally have fewer side-effects, because they do not have any estrogen in them to cause more.

Generally speaking, birth-control pills’ side effects can include nausea, headaches, mood changes, blood-pressure changes, skin problems, skin improvements, changes in the internal texture or external appearance of the breasts, vaginal irritation, urinary-tract infections, and irregular bleeding (also called “breakthrough bleeding” or “spotting”). Consult your doctor and read the documents accompanying your specific brand of pills to find out more.

SOURCES: Pill manufacturers’ Web sites,

Shifting sands: Pill pressure and reproductive rights

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Reproductive rights are a moving target. No matter what decisions are made by the courts, Congress, or state legislators, birth control and reproductive rights are at the nexus of public policy, individual privacy, health-care regulations, ethical arguments, religious beliefs, and morality. As individual and societal interpretations of and positions on all of those elements shift with time, so will the laws, guidelines, rules, and social “acceptability” of a spectrum of options available to women, and more recently, men, regarding their rights and obligations, their desire and ability to bear children — or not — in the ways they want.

Thirty-five years ago, in 1971, the US Supreme Court issued its first-ever ruling on the subject of abortion, upholding a District of Columbia law allowing an abortion to protect the life or health of the mother. The court’s ruling in the case, United States v. Vuitch, held not only that abortions were legal, but that the word “health” in the law “includes psychological as well as physical well-being,” effectively opening a door to any woman who wanted to have an abortion.

But the fact that most states outlawed abortion except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk — even if her health would have been damaged in some way, so long as she survived — made the Vuitch decision a key component in the Roe v. Wade arguments and decisions. The ruling, handed down just eight months before the December 1971 first round of oral arguments for Roe, was the subject of much discussion between the attorneys and the justices, and figured prominently in both rounds of oral arguments for Roe (the second held in October 1972). (Vuitch was, in fact, the subject of the first question from the bench in the second round, according to official transcripts of the event.) And the Vuitch ruling draws together the legal framework for arguing that a fetus is not a “person,” as intended in the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits depriving a person of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

That argument was later expanded upon in the Roe decision, in which the Court noted that all of the references to “person” in the Constitution are to people who have been born already — not to the unborn.

At this very moment in the decision, however, just as the fetus-as-non-person argument was hitting its stride, its one weakness is also revealed: if a fetus were somehow to be included in the legal definition of “person,” its right to life would be guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Until Roe, however, women had to travel from one state to another to find places to procure abortions legally. Now, with the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Associate Justice Samuel Alito widely expected to result in a reversal of Roe, and with Planned Parenthood conducting a “Save Roe” campaign and the National Pro-Life Alliance sending mailers around the nation seeking donations to “reverse Roe v. Wade,” women are seeking secure ways to exercise control over their bodies, their lives, and their futures.

One of those methods, and the most common for women to use, is birth-control pills. (For men it is condoms.) The Pill is usually made with estrogen taken from the urine of pregnant horses, though it’s also manufactured with synthetic versions of that hormone and a related hormone, progesterone. Clinical studies show that the Pill (or really, the many variations on it) is between 92 and 95 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.

The Pill’s various side effects include some “desirable” ones, such as regulating the timing and quantity of menstruation, preventing acne and other skin problems, and, in some cases, reducing the risk of breast diseases, ovarian cysts, and uterine cancer.

But the Pill is not an easy answer. Taking it has medical risks, for which there are voluminous pages of warnings issued with every filled prescription. More than that, though, the Pill does not allow its users to avoid complicated questions about lifestyle, health, future, and morality. And in some cases, the Pill brings those questions closer.

In the past year, several lawsuits have been filed against the manufacturers of Ortho-Evra, a birth-control medication administered through a medication-infused patch that stays on a woman’s skin for weeks at a time, instead of being administered by daily doses of the Pill. The suits have generally alleged that the patch unacceptably increased the risk of stroke in women using it as a form of birth control, and allege that in as many as 20 cases the patch caused the death of a woman on the patch. (The patch’s manufacturer, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has denied knowledge of problems with the patch, though that denial has come under fire as a result of the discovery, in lawsuits, of internal company documents some say refute it.)

Earlier this year, a Michigan man filed a federal lawsuit effectively seeking the right not to be a father. According to the lawsuit, Matthew Dubay was in a relationship with a woman during which he was very clear to her that he did not ever want to be a father or have children. The woman allegedly told him that she was infertile and using contraception (though what kind is not laid out in the suit, some news reports have assumed she was on the Pill). But the woman got pregnant all the same, and carried the baby to term. She then sought a court order for child-support payments, which Dubay is fighting, arguing that he deserves an analogous right to her unilateral right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. That is, he is seeking the right not to be a father, in a case that is being called “Roe v. Wade for men,” just proving that no matter how much — or how little — is ever actually “settled,” there’s always more to talk about, argue about, and figure out.