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

On December 5, 1985, both Taft and Price were asked to debate abortion in front of a live TV audience on the Ed Busch Talk Show. At first Charlotte defended herself, fighting off charges that she was a godless profiteer murdering innocent children. Then on the attack, she castigated Price for imposing his religious morality on a woman's right to chose. "Many people don't believe that life begins at conception, and your view removes their option to exercise their ethical beliefs."

After 20 minutes of verbal sparring, Price held a photograph in his hand. He claimed that Charlotte had suggested that men had no right to debate abortion because "they didn't go through childbirth."

"I challenge you to ever show me a time when I said that..." she demanded.
"...I have been reluctant to do that because I would be forced to reveal what I am going to reveal now. And that is, in fact, that you are a lesbian."

A loud chorus of boos rose from the audience.
Price grew flustered. "It's right here," he declared, holding up the photo. "Here is her picture as one of the six gay activist members of the Democratic National Platform Committee--Charlotte Taft of Texas."

Charlotte maintained her composure. Price remained unapologetic. He had grown weary of her trying to disenfranchise him from the debate. What better way to level the playing field than to level the player herself?

At the commercial break, Charlotte broke down sobbing. She worried that her televised outing would ruin the clinic, destroy her credibility. But Charlotte was perceived as having been attacked, publicly violated, and the outpouring of support she received from around the country buoyed her resolve. Until that photograph was shown, very few people knew about Charlotte's sexual orientation. Even within the lesbian community, her secret was closely guarded. Yet it always made her feel dishonest with herself--out of integrity, she would say.

Because Charlotte was Charlotte, she brought what had happened in her own life back to Routh Street, using it to accelerate the growth of the clinic's feminist culture. "Ironically," says Beth Yager, "the outing pushed Charlotte and the clinic into a more revolutionary phase." "If not for Bill Price," says Charlotte, "I couldn't have gotten to the point of telling women the truth about abortion."

For its 8-year existence, thought Charlotte, the clinic had not honestly dealt with the question: "What is this thing growing inside the woman?" In counseling sessions, staffers had referred to "it" as fetal tissue, the products of conception, potential life. Charlotte now encouraged her staffers to talk about their feelings in weekly staff meetings. What did they believe "it" was? They all had worked with sonograms, had heard the fetal heartbeat. They all had worked with patients who talked to their fetus, named their fetus, felt profound grief at its loss. Was it life they were grieving? Was it murder they were committing? If it wasn't alive, then why did they have to kill it?

"The consensus was that abortion was a kind of a killing," says Yager. "Something is growing and then you stop it from growing. How else could it be anything but life?" But that life, they agreed, wasn't a person, and wasn't entitled to the same protections as a person. Its killing could be justified, much like other killings in our society are justified.

"When we talked about it amongst ourselves," recalls Charlotte, "our ability to talk about it with patients was transformed." Only by staffers working through their own feelings could they provide the emotional support so critical to patients, Charlotte reasoned; only if patients learned the truth about abortion could they work through their shame about it and resolve their conflicts. Each would learn from the other in a free-flowing circle of feelings and ideas.

The traditional hierarchy was dead at Routh Street--and in its place lay Charlotte's web.

By 1991, no other abortion clinic in the country was doing the kind of in-depth counseling offered at Routh Street. When a woman first called for an appointment, she was screened by a phone counselor, who told her that all women had to go through counseling before going through with their abortion. If the woman said she didn't want counseling, she was referred to one of nine other abortion clinics in Dallas. Although the doctors balked at sending away business, Charlotte felt she was ethically obliged to inform women of what they might expect at the earliest opportunity.

After a woman walked in the door, she filled out a detailed counseling form which was meant to explore her feelings and beliefs. Did she feel angry, happy, trapped, numb, ashamed, resolved? Did she believe abortion was the same thing as murdering a born person? That God would punish her? Was someone forcing her into having an abortion? Would she ever be able to forgive herself?

Upon completion of the form, the woman was greeted by a counselor who escorted her to a private room for a session which generally lasted 45 minutes to an hour. "Nearly 90 percent of the women needed very little counseling at all," explains former counselor Morgen Goodroe. "They were committed to their decision--maybe saddened by it. But sadness is quite normal."

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