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

It was July 9, 1985, and the Routh Street Women's Clinic looked like a war zone. No longer nestled within the quiet, tree-lined streets of Oak Lawn, the clinic had in 1983 moved into a white two-story office building on Central Expressway. An anti-abortion group, the White Rose, leased space just across the breezeway, its windows adorned with gruesome photos of dismembered fetuses. The high visibility of the clinic as well as its director made it a lightning rod for anti-abortion activists around the nation.

This day, 200 anti-abortion protesters crowded the sidewalks, parking lot, and stairways of the clinic armed with placards which read, "Stop The Slaughter Now...Abortion Is ALegal Right. Take It Personally!" A bearded man lifted a bullhorn which amplified the recorded sound of a baby crying. Then he shouted through the bullhorn, "Hear the cry of the unborn, you wretched whores!"

Not to be denied, the pro-choice community had assembled its own multitude--some 200 strong. With banners unfurled, necks stretched, and voices heard in fierce rebuttal, they did little more than add to the media spectacle.

A national anti-abortion leader named Joseph Scheidler had come to town to dedicate the large billboard posted over the Routh Street Clinic, which was supposed to read, "Abortion Is Murder. Take It Personally." Pro-lifers considered renting the sign quite a coup, but grew livid that morning when they noticed that the billboard had been defaced to read, "Abortion Is ALegal Right! Take It Personally!!"

As one pro-life minister addressed the crowd, dedicating the billboard in "the name of our Lord," the clinic received a bomb threat. Its premises were searched, but its doors remained open. Yet Joseph Scheidler had vowed to shut down every abortion clinic in town. With cameras rolling, he led a group of local anti-abortion leaders to the entrance of the Routh Street clinic and demanded entry. They had already tried the same tactics at several other Dallas clinics and had been offered no resistance. But Charlotte Taft stood brazenly in the doorway of Routh Street Women's Clinic and said no.

"You might as well move aside," said Scheidler, his white suit and black beard cutting an imposing figure. "We're coming in."

"Over my dead body," Charlotte yelled. After a brief standoff, Scheidler left, taking his tactics to yet another clinic. Charlotte returned to her office and sat down, but was soon distracted from her work by the chants of the protesters outside. "Charlotte Taft repent! Charlotte Taft repent!"

She grew furious. She had already been subjected to a rally, a bomb threat, a bully--now the crowd was getting personal. She went back outside, standing on the balcony, not knowing exactly what to say or do. Then she started blowing kisses at the crowd below, waving as though she were royalty, and they, the masses come to see their queen.

"Thank you for coming," she smiled brightly. "Oh, you brought your grandchild. How lovely! Great to see you." As she continued, she noticed that the chant of "Charlotte Taft repent" was sounding a little sheepish. The pro-lifers began to laugh awkwardly--they had been totally disarmed by her gentle response.

"Nothing was ever the same after that moment," recalls Charlotte. "You can't be mean at someone if they are blowing kisses at you." By turning her opponents' own energy against them--a technique she would later re-discover in the martial art of Aikido--Charlotte had managed to neutralize the conflict.

Of course that didn't stop hordes of people from laying their bodies across the clinic's entrance. Or invading the clinic and preaching that God's law was above man's law. It didn't stop the weekly bomb threats and death threats. It didn't stop fanatics from spraying butyric acid inside the clinic so everything smelled like vomit for months.

It did, however, have a disarming effect on mass rallies. As more extremist groups like Operation Rescue made their presence felt in the early 1990s, trespassing while singing their hymns, the women of Routh Street accompanied them on kazoos. On another occasion, they passed out lemonade and donuts for the protesters' righteous pleasure. Charlotte started a fund-raiser where pro-choice people could pledge a dollar for every picketer. Protesters were thanked for coming, and informed that their presence would help pay for the abortions of women who couldn't afford their own. "The longer the Operation Rescue protests went on, the less we saw of them," says Beth Yager, a former clinic counselor. "We reacted in a way they just didn't know how to deal with."

Charlotte's personal debating style underwent a similar shift in emphasis--though it never totally lost its slugfest quality. From the beginning, Charlotte was a missionary for choice, debating the issue wherever and whenever asked. She followed the straight party line, speaking of rights rather than religion, fetal development rather than unborn children. "We didn't even use the word 'terminate,'" recalls Charlotte. "We said that the fetus was not alive. Our rhetoric was closer to, 'it's just a blob of tissue.'"

Charlotte found herself constantly doing battle with Bill Price, a fundamentalist minister and director of Greater Dallas Right to Life. "She was a formidable foe," recalls Price. "She knew how to appeal to people who were in the middle of the issue. She didn't just sing to the choir."

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