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

But if a woman believed that abortion was murder, wrong, a sin--if she refused to talk about her feelings, acted numb, shut down, if she said she didn't really want the abortion but someone else was forcing her to go through with it--then more work needed to be done.

"I would ask her how she felt about what is inside her," says Goodroe. "If she said, 'I feel bad because I may be murdering a living thing,' we'd keep talking. I would ask her if she believed there is a difference between murder and killing. If she felt it was all right to kill in self-defense. If this felt like self-defense."

If the woman was incapable of separating murder from killing, guilt from grief, her own feelings from those of her mother, her boyfriend, her priest, the woman was told she was not ready. Instead, she was sent away with homework--an "Abortion Resolution Workbook," designed to help the woman examine the abortion question from every perspective. If the woman needed to grieve the loss of the fetus, she was asked to write a letter of good-bye to it, explaining the reasons for her choice.

Once the woman had completed the homework and felt more at peace with her decision, the clinic would proceed with her abortion. She always had the choice of going to another clinic. "If the woman thought she was murdering her baby," explains Goodroe, "it was my ethical decision not to be her accomplice."

Some women grew furious, outraged that they were being denied their abortion. Those who were private patients of Dr. Braun would often complain directly to him. Dr. Braun would grow angry, telling Charlotte: "If I tell you that one of my patients doesn't want counseling, that is exactly what I mean!"

But Charlotte refused to compromise. "I always made it clear that I was not willing to skip our process for anyone. I will not help a woman harm herself." Besides, Charlotte felt that the women who protested the most were the most in need of counseling. "It's not that the woman couldn't have the abortion," she explains. "It's just that she couldn't have it at Routh Street."

Dr. William West, a gynecologist who worked part-time at the clinic, took issue with Charlotte's position. "If we object when the legislature interferes with a woman's decision, why shouldn't we object when you or me or Charlotte Taft interferes with it?"

Dr. West also had problems with Charlotte's approach to counseling. "We have long disagreed about whether brief counseling can make a woman psychologically whole," he says.

But Charlotte found her proof in the many stories of the women who went through her counseling. The recovery room was decorated with hundreds of valentine hearts, messages of courage written by the women who had just gone through the procedure to the women yet to come. "It was affirmed to us over and over that what we were doing was on target," says former administrator Sallie Stratton. "For a woman willing to do the work, major transformations happened."

Whether Dr. Braun saw the value in counseling remained something of a mystery to the women of Routh Street. "Like most doctors, he hated to be kept waiting," says Stratton. "He would get very antsy if he thought a session was going on too long." But other than raising concerns about his own patients--or expressing impatience--he never interfered with Charlotte's vision. And he never said counseling was too expensive or unnecessary. If he held these opinions, he never voiced them. Charlotte interpreted his silence as an article of faith.

By the late 1980s, Charlotte had realized her dream of making Routh Street into a feminist workplace. For the 25 employees at Routh Street, the "clinic culture" was an ongoing partnership between staff and management, a participatory democracy where decisions were made by consensus. Weekly staff meetings had no fixed agenda; anyone could bring up any issue of concern. Each staffer could choose her own supervisor. Hiring and firing was often a communal act requiring input from anyone who held an opinion. Each woman could decide her own pay raise, based on her own "honest" evaluation of her work.

No one said the system was perfect; they said it was "a process." But the clinic culture had evolved enough to codify its values. In a seven-page document entitled, "What Do We Think We Are Doing Here?" Charlotte laid out a list of specific agreements that everyone employed by the clinic had to abide by.

The first was called "The Form," a somewhat radical departure from the usual ways of managing conflict. In the traditional workplace, if one worker was having problems with another, he might secretly complain to a supervisor or a sympathetic ally. But at Routh Street, it was the responsibility of the "bothered person" to go right to the source of the problem and ask to "hold The Form" with her.

Rather than blame and accuse, she would relate her own feelings--directly, honestly, unflinchingly. "When you came in late, I felt angry because I had more to do than I could handle." The listener might respond with her own feelings or simply say, "Thank you for sharing." A third person would be asked to be holder--a referee who would ensure that all the agreements of The Form were honored.

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