Charlotte's Web

At the Routh Street Women's Clinic, Charlotte Taft created a controversial feminist enclave and waged war with anti-abortion zealots. Then she questioned her movement's gospeland it all fell apart

At 10 weeks, the procedure seems simple enough.
The woman assumes the standard gynecological position--back flat against the table, thighs spread, feet elevated in stirrups. Nitrous oxide is offered to calm her anxiety, deep breathing encouraged to take off the edge. Think of a favorite place, says the counselor, a childhood space. Or try staring at the poster overhead--a cascading waterfall in a lush Hawaiian rain forest.

With the woman more at ease, the doctor begins the pelvic exam. Inserting two fingers into her vagina, he pushes up on her cervix. With his other hand, he presses forcefully against her lower abdomen so he can capture her uterus and examine it.

Then he reaches for a speculum, and slides its two metal halves into her vagina, three to four inches deep. As he loosens the thumbscrew at the opposite end of the speculum, the metal halves open like jaws, separating and holding back the vaginal walls so the cervix can be easily seen.

Next the doctor disinfects the vaginal cavity with an anti-bacterial liquid, cleansing the surface in preparation for surgery. Now he injects the cervix with an anesthetic, pricking it in three places. The needle may heighten the woman's fear; the counselor talks her through the pain--a stinging sensation which only lasts a few seconds before the numbness sets in.

Then the doctor inserts the first of a series of dilators, a stainless-steel rod about nine inches long. The tip of each dilator is gently poked through the cervical os, enlarging the cervix a millimeter at a time. The dilation agitates the uterus and causes it to cramp. This is often the most severe pain the woman experiences.

Once the dilation is complete, the cervix is opened wide enough to pass through it a vacurette--a clear plastic tube the size of a soda straw. One end of the vacurette is inserted into the uterus; the other end is attached to a wider tube that runs into a glass bottle sitting on a vacuum aspiration machine. Once turned on, the machine creates a suction which pulls out the contents of the uterus. The woman feels a tugging at her insides as the fetal tissue, or unborn life (depending on your political persuasion), is sucked out of her. In an instant, the material passes through the tube, appearing like a dark clump of blood, with the texture of hamburger. All "products of conception" must be vacuumed from the uterus so it will stop bleeding, shut down and return to normal. The contents will later be examined to make certain all remnants of the fetus have been removed.

It takes about as long to describe an abortion as it does to perform one.
That's partly why some abortion clinics are vulnerable to attack from anti-abortion groups which claim they are nothing but "mills," raking in cash for profiteering doctors who capitalize on the dismembered bodies of the unborn. $300 for five minutes of surgery. It's not only homicidal, they argue--it's unconscionable.

The Routh Street Women's Clinic in Dallas has never been immune from such criticism. Yet its founding director, Charlotte Taft, has cultivated a "not-for-profit" persona for her clinic, one that at times seemed to treat the bottom-line mentality of corporate America with considerable contempt. Though it has been a commercial enterprise since its inception in 1978, Routh Street has performed hundreds of abortions on poverty-level patients for reduced fees, deferred fees, or for no fees at all. At considerable expense to the clinic, Taft maintained a large staff of crisis counselors to deal with the turmoil of women conflicted by their "choice." "One woman at a time" became the clarion call of Routh Street as it built a national reputation around keeping a woman's physical and emotional health paramount.

As a card-carrying feminist, Charlotte Taft, almost by default, became the voice of the pro-choice movement in this city. In the mean-spirited war of words and wills that fuels the abortion debate, her gentle demeanor and verbal dexterity made her every reporter's dream--and every pro-lifer's nightmare. Small wonder she rose to national prominence within the women's movement, serving on enough committees, alliances, caucuses, and advisory boards to start her own political party.

Although Charlotte Taft never owned the Routh Street Women's Clinic, for 17 years she treated it as though it were her own. Then, on January 30, 1995, Taft surprised Dallas by resigning.

"It is not possible for me to continue," she told the Dallas Morning News. "The owner and I have had some philosophical differences we have not been able to reconcile." Taft refused to elaborate on the exact nature of those difficulties.

Speculation ran rampant. Did Taft resign voluntarily or was she forced out? She had recently made some highly inflammatory remarks about the pro-choice movement in the local press, saying that the movement hadn't been honest with women. She even called abortion "a kind of killing." Had Taft played right into the hands of anti-abortion zealots, adopting their very language as her own? Had she so betrayed the pro-choice community that she had to be sacrificed for the sake of the movement?

In truth, Charlotte played a considerable part in her own undoing, both through her comments and her determination to build a feminist utopia at Routh Street. As with so much about her, the mystery behind her resignation was both simpler and more complex than it seemed. Behind the walls of Routh Street, an internal power struggle had been going on for more than three years, pitting Charlotte against the clinic's owner. It was a clash between Taft's bid to carry out a dramatic social experiment and the simple principles of economics.

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