William Plummer
October 28, 1985 12:00 PM

I’m scared,” said Marilyn Henderson. “Well, I’m nervous.” A few minutes earlier, the 17-year-old senior at Chicago’s DuSable High School had been acting cool about her imminent delivery—talking sassy about “the brat” that “Doc is going to give me as a present.” Now, suddenly, her true feelings showed.

“Don’t worry,” said Louise McCurry, the nurse practitioner, while driving Marilyn to the maternity unit of Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian hospital. “It will be much easier and quicker than before.”

“Oh, my stomach! I’m having a contraction,” Marilyn cried.

“Do your deep breathing,” encouraged McCurry, adding, “Remember, your cheering section is going to be there.”

The five-pound-nine-ounce baby boy delivered last week by single mother Marilyn Henderson was her second child by the same man in the span of two years—thus, her attempt at being blasé. For DuSable High School, however, the birth was a first. Little Jeff Lamont Bell was the first baby born to one of DuSable’s own since June, when the school turned a former home economics room into a controversial clinic, which, in addition to dispensing medical care, advises on birth control methods and provides contraceptives to students who have parental permission.

The high school family planning program is a radical response to a desperate situation. DuSable is a virtual baby mill. The school serves one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, a complex of high rises named the Robert Taylor Housing Project, and the Chicago Board of Health estimates that one-third of DuSable’s 1,000 female students find themselves pregnant each year. Still more disturbing is the area’s infant mortality rate, which, at 30 deaths per 1,000 infants, is nearly three times higher than the national average—nearly twice as high as those of Puerto Rico and Cuba. The answer to these alarming statistics, felt Dr. Doris McCulley, a 1965 DuSable grad, was a clinic attached to the school, a warm, homey sort of place where frightened teenage girls could be educated, given medication free of charge and monitored. “DuSable has a 50 percent dropout rate,” explains school principal Judith Steinhagen. “The chief reason that girls drop out is pregnancy or lack of child care. Twenty years ago this [clinic] would have been a shocking idea, but all I can say is we’re trying to keep some young ladies in school and off welfare.”

To many, the idea of a school-based clinic that deals with sex is still shocking. Back in June the DuSable project was given a 7-to-0 vote of confidence by the City Board of Education. But the support wavered under criticism from religious leaders, including Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, and picketing by Moral Majority and right-to-life groups. Last week the board voted just 6 to 5 to permit the clinic to continue dispensing birth control aids. The objection to the DuSable clinic was expressed by board member Betty Bonow, who voted against it. “We are condoning in one sense what is going on,” she says, “and not addressing the problems that are causing the sexual activity. How can we on one hand tell high school students to refrain from sex and on the other provide them with materials to make sex?” Asks Joe Scheidler, the director of the Pro-Life Action League, “Have we totally given up? Why don’t we rent a motel and assign the kids to a room? Why don’t we supply free drugs, porno magazines and alcohol too?”

The answer from the educators at DuSable is that they are dealing as best they can with a regrettable reality. Of the 30 school-based clinics in the U.S., a total of nine in Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Jackson, Miss, dispense contraceptives in an aggressive attempt to curb births among unmarried teens. In 1983 there were 261,260 births to unmarried women aged 15 to 19 in the U.S. To girls under age 15, there were 8,816 births. “I don’t think we are ever going to change the sexual activities of teenagers,” says principal Steinhagen. “It would be wonderful if teenagers were scared by what their parents or churches thought about their sexual practices, but it’s not going back to that. Meantime these girls continue to get pregnant, drop out and go on welfare.” Steinhagen does believe that teenagers should take responsibility for their sexual activity. “Our young women,” she says, “should be made to realize that it is not socially accepted around the country that an unmarried woman has and raises a baby. You see movie stars doing it and the lovers of rock stars, but in some places there is still some shame and embarrassment on the part of the family and the girl.”

Only 25 percent of the DuSable clinic visits deal with matters of family planning. Birth control materials for boys and girls are not given out until after a full medical examination. In these exams doctors have turned up heart murmurs and diabetes, as well as a variety of venereal diseases. In the first month alone, they found 50 students who needed glasses. As for birth control, parents were given permission forms to sign last April when they came to pick up student report cards. “Ninety percent of the consent forms were signed in the school,” says Steinhagen, who adds, “We feel we have had informed consent.”

Clinic obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. John Hobbs is especially concerned about the infant deaths, which he hopes to reduce by 10 percent before the year is out. Hobbs says the tragically high mortality figures at DuSable are caused by low-weight babies, drug abuse, poor nutrition and inadequate medical care. “The kids’ biggest problem,” he says, “is that, if they are pregnant, no one has ever cared about them. They go to a small clinic in the city that gives them vitamins and never checks them over. Most kids who come in here have no idea whatsoever about good health, good hygiene, well-baby care.” Hobbs, one of four black physicians on the staff, expects to change that. “You have to love these kids,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Antoinette Winter, 16, a sophomore at DuSable, is determined not to become one of the school’s 300 pregnant women. She has talked with nurses at the clinic about sex. “I was scared and they helped me,” she says. “They told me if I was going to have sex to take the Pill.” Already in a maternity top, Elenora Spencer, 18, believes she wouldn’t be pregnant right now had the clinic existed a year ago. She’s grateful, however, that she can continue her schooling. Elenora, who goes to parenting and exercise class at the clinic with “my baby’s father,” says, “If the clinic wasn’t here, I would have dropped out. I wouldn’t be able to graduate.” Ethel Hogan is also a champion of the DuSable clinic. The mother of 13 children (one a student at DuSable), Ethel says the critics of the program “don’t see how it hurts these children to have babies. They don’t see the child abuse. They don’t see the unwanted babies. Some of the girls are going on their second child.”

Marilyn Henderson, for example. A few days after the delivery she dressed little Jeff in blue and waited for friends and relatives—including people from the clinic, “the other half of my family”—to arrive for a belated shower. Marilyn’s mother cut up cucumbers for the salad, even as Valerie, her 1½ year old, raced in to see her new brother for the first time.

“You jealous?” asked Marilyn, who was holding the infant.

“No,” said Valerie, who was just back from visiting her father and was trying to get into her mother’s arms.

“I’m tired,” said Marilyn, who talked about taking a nap. Then she smiled—suddenly refreshed by a thought. “Six weeks from now,” she said, “I’ll be back at school.”

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