Charlotte's Web

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.

For Charlotte Taft, the personal was not only political but professional. As she struggled to transform herself, evolving from feminist to humanist to gay activist to New Ageist, picking and choosing the paradigms that worked for her, she brought the Routh Street Women's Clinic along with her. As a personal memoir of the women's movement, that journey was always controversial--and often dangerous.

When Charlotte Taft recalls her college days at Brown University circa 1970, she remembers arguing with friends that she "didn't need a women's movement." She considered herself an intellectual who could hold her own in a man's world by arming herself with enough facts and figures to convert a Republican into a believer in big government. She was "a man's woman" who marched and protested and went on strike against the Vietnam War. She found women foolish and uninteresting, right up until she took a class entitled "The Politics of Women's Liberation." "It lit a fire in me," says Charlotte. "After that point, I began to see everything in my life in the context of my feminism."

For many "women's libbers," feminism meant hating men--hating their ready resort to violence, their power over women, children, the environment. Charlotte says she realized early on that the movement wasn't about revolution but transformation, not about overpowering men--seizing their jobs, their roles, their institutions--but about empowering women. The first step seemed a logical one; if women could gain control over their bodies, they could gain control over their lives.

Charlotte grew deeply involved in abortion politics. Again, she took to the streets, this time with her sisters. She helped organize the Rhode Island Coalition for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, a group which filed a class-action suit, hoping to become a test case for the Supreme Court to overturn laws which criminalized abortion. Instead the Court chose a case out of Texas, Roe vs. Wade, which in 1973 brought abortions out of back alleys and into medical clinics.

Charlotte spent the next several years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, obtaining a masters degree in feminist studies and debating the great women's issues of the day. At age 25 she fell in love--but not with a man. "The option for being gay or straight is in me," she explains. "But only with women do I find the kind of emotional connection that I want."

In 1975, Charlotte moved to Dallas to be with her lover and got to experience the beginning of the women's movement all over again. Feminist ideology was making its first assault on the macho mindset of Bible-belted Texans. The Equal Rights Amendment was up for grabs, pro-choice groups on the rise. Yet some local activists had difficulty confronting the good-ol'-boy establishment so pervasive within this city. Not Charlotte Taft.

Already an articulate feminist, she arrived in Dallas unemployed, unaligned, and uncompromising. "I got to be famous pretty quickly," says Taft, whose blonde, statuesque presence and grace under fire made her incredibly telegenic. "When someone needed a response from a feminist, they put a microphone in front of me."

While some women picked their fights carefully, choosing to push the issue dearest to their hearts, Charlotte saw each issue as an essential part of a greater feminist whole. She did, however, refuse to champion the cause of gay rights, feeling that she would undermine her effectiveness if she publicly acknowledged her sexual preference.

In late 1975, after being interviewed about abortion politics on a local TV news show, she learned about an opening for an abortion counselor at the Fairmount Center in Dallas and decided to apply. Although she could argue about the right to choose with the fervor of a televangelist, she had never actually witnessed an abortion. "I was totally unprepared for what I saw," she recalls. "I fainted dead away, but they hired me anyway."

Charlotte worked at the Fairmount Center for nearly two years, but it was not an easy time for her. She had too many opinions, wanted to run everything her way. Her supervisor finally told her she was getting too involved in her patients' lives. It would not be the last time Taft would hear such criticism.

After getting demoted, she quit, but not before forging an alliance with two of Fairmount's doctors, Lea Braun and Bob Glick. They agreed to stake Charlotte in managing a new clinic.

Dr. Braun sought the counsel of his divorce lawyer, Scott Hudson, who became the clinic's corporate attorney and board chairman. Hudson recalls his initial lunch meeting with Charlotte and Dr. Braun. "We all agreed that the clinic ought to be an institution run by women for women. The idea wasn't that we were all going to get rich."

Hudson put the corporate structure in place, creating two separate entities, medical and management, with him acting as a buffer between the two. By law, the clinic needed a doctor to be its medical director. Dr. Braun agreed to serve in that capacity. The newly formed corporation leased space in a quaint building on Routh Street in Oak Lawn--enough to house the clinic, Hudson's law office, and Dr. Braun's private ob-gyn practice.

It took nine months to plan, but in April of 1978, the Routh Street Women's Clinic opened its doors to the women of Dallas.

From the beginning, Charlotte put in place at Routh Street a revolutionary vision for the way she wanted things done.

Like every good feminist, she spent a lot of time thinking about power: how to share it rather than abuse it, how to lead by example rather than fear. She believed the white male patriarchy kept information scarce, people small, and profits in the hands of a few.

In her feminist utopia, there would be no rigid linear hierarchy. She wanted the geometry of Routh Street to be more of a circle, where decisions would be made by as large a consensus as possible, where administrators and staff would be partners in creating policy. Charlotte wanted everything to be shared--authority, feelings, even money. What better way to empower her all-female staff than to pay them well for their work?

Charlotte felt the standard corporate mantra--that you left your personal feelings at home--was a lie. If women--who are socialized to be more emotional than men--had problems which affected their work, why not deal with them honestly, rather than pretending they didn't exist? "My feminist ideals fueled my desire to create a completely different kind of workplace," says Charlotte. "A place where women would act out of integrity and risk being emotionally honest with each other."

Charlotte's brand of feminism fit hand-in-glove with her own personal psychology. She was a people-pleaser who did not wish to offend, a Pollyanna whose "good girl" image mandated that she be unerringly fair. Even Charlotte admits she had a hard time being "the Daddy boss."

"I needed to learn how to deal with conflict better. I could say, 'come with me and see this great vision.' What I couldn't say was 'you're screwing up.'" She was always searching for a softer way to manage conflict. The "heads-will-roll" approach of many corporate managers was antithetical to her evolving style.

Charlotte's feminist vision was by no means limited to her staff. "The concept of women being partners in their health care was very important to me," says Charlotte.

Since abortion was an elective procedure, the need for information was critical--both ethically and legally. Rather than have her patients sign off on some boilerplate consent form, Charlotte drafted one which broke down all possible risks. Infection. Incomplete abortion. Excessive bleeding. Blood clotting. Perforation of the uterus. Internal damage which could result in the inability to get pregnant in the future. Death.

Yet Charlotte was certain that abortion also had a big emotional component. "It's a planned crisis," she says. "Not only do you pay for it, but you have to make an appointment." Although most women who presented themselves for an abortion were resolutely committed to their decision, many were still troubled by their choice, emotionally conflicted by the social mores which decree it legal, but immoral. "Abortion holds every contradiction that there is for us," says Charlotte. "Life and death, birth and destruction, beginnings and endings, good and bad. Then we superimpose on it law and medicine and politics."

For Charlotte, this crisis could be a healing experience or a damaging one, depending on the systems put in place to deal with it. Most clinics did little counseling, just stayed with the fundamentals of informed consent. A few did some emotional handholding, allowing women to have their feelings--their anger or sadness. Only Routh Street made the attempt to resolve those feelings beforehand--so a woman could leave the experience without feeling torn apart.

Although treating the emotions has never been part of the traditional medical model--and individual counseling was expensive--Charlotte convinced herself that Dr. Braun believed in it, as she did. A short, slender 61-year-old with Coke-bottle-thick glasses, Dr. Braun is a man of few words. Yet he once told Charlotte that he always knew when a woman had been through an abortion. He would take her medical history--ask her how many times she had been pregnant, how many children she had. When the numbers didn't match, she would bow her head in shame. "That women have shame about abortions didn't feel right to him," says Charlotte. "He knew that was the piece we were working on."

Of course, there was no room for Dr. Braun in Charlotte's feminist enclave. He was the medical, they were management, kept separate and apart by corporate bylaws, by the comfort in keeping things distant--not to mention their different sex. Dr. Braun adored Charlotte, but he didn't really understand her. And Charlotte didn't want to be adored. She wanted to be effective--to transform your life, if only you'd let her.

Dr. Braun came into the clinic on Wednesdays and alternate Saturdays, performed his abortions and left. He attended stockholders meetings, but didn't put himself on the board of directors--not even after he bought out Dr. Glick and became 90 percent owner. "I was not much involved in the clinic except for the medical," he admits. "Making sure that the patient received the best care possible." If he held any reservations about the counseling program that Charlotte had instituted, he didn't express them. He preferred to let others do his talking for him. Yet even his lawyer and board chairman, Scott Hudson, had every intention of "letting Charlotte be Charlotte. "

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."

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."

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.

At least once a month in staff meetings, according to the document, everyone would be given the opportunity to "speak from the heart about what really matters to her." A "Talking Stick," a ritual taken from Native American tradition, would be passed around a circle, and the person holding it could speak uninterrupted. There were no rules about what was shared. If a woman wanted to talk about why she was distracted at work, fine. If she wanted to share what she had learned at a weekend workshop on the healing power of crystals, fine. If she wanted to reveal that she had come to the sudden realization that she was a lesbian, that was fine too.

But sharing feelings and power came easier to some than others. Some people just wanted to be told what to do. And although dealing honestly and directly was fine as a utopian ideal, as a matter of business policy, it was difficult to enforce. Several nurses on the medical team resented having to hold The Form and objected to the emphasis placed on counseling. Rather than express their dissatisfaction within staff meetings as agreed, they took their complaints to Dr. Braun.

The feminist universe that Charlotte created had never included Dr. Braun. If anything, he was purposely kept out of its cosmology. He was never asked to be a partner in the clinic culture, never asked to sign on to its agreements. One time, a counselor tried to hold The Form with him; he rarely spoke to her again. "Direct communication was never his forte," says Sallie Stratton.

For 15 years, Dr. Braun expressed little interest in the day-to-day operations of the clinic, allowing Charlotte absolute control. He had financed her political causes, her personal growth, her social engineering. But now that these matters had been brought to his attention, he wanted certain things to change.

If he could just figure out a way of telling Charlotte.
Early in 1992, Scott Hudson asked Charlotte to come by his law office. It was his job to tell her: Dr. Braun had commissioned a management study. Outside consultants would be observing the clinic and recommending changes.

What he didn't tell her was that Braun thought the staff meetings were a waste of time, that salaries were out of line, and that the counseling was too expensive. "He wanted to blame the changes on somebody besides himself," recalls Hudson. "He thought the management study would recommend doing away with counseling altogether."

Charlotte felt threatened, betrayed. Any changes that needed to be made should be home-grown, only implemented after input from the staff--not imposed by outsiders. But Charlotte had no choice. The owner had finally decided to assert himself; it was his right.

Beginning in March 1992, two women moonlighting from Dun and Bradstreet spent several months at the clinic, interviewing employees past and present, observing the counseling, the staff, their interactions.

Their recommendations: do away with The Form and the Talking Stick. Staff meetings needed to have a fixed agenda set by the administrators--one that didn't include the venting of personal feelings. Implement a more rigid hierarchy. Cut back on the number of administrators. Restructure their work and salaries. Tie pay raises to productivity, not subjectivity. Implement a dress code to make the clinic look more like a doctor's office. Cut back on political expenses that don't directly benefit the clinic.

Only the sensitive issue of counseling was left untouched: the consultants suggested no changes.

On July 10, 1992, when Charlotte met with Dr. Braun and Scott Hudson to discuss the report's findings, she refused to address its specifics. She believed the friction which gave rise to the report was more about making money than about "personal feelings" in the workplace.

The past decade had been difficult for Dr. Braun. He'd lost money during the real estate bust, been hit hard by managed health care, and the patient load at the clinic had been declining. He was getting older, musing openly about retirement. Often, he talked about just giving Charlotte the clinic outright.

But if this was about turning a profit, she could take care of that. "How much money do you need to make from the clinic?" she asked Braun. "Give us a goal."

He offered no answer. For him, it was enough that he had given her a copy of the management report. That was his answer.

But Scott Hudson didn't insist she implement the study; he had too much respect for Charlotte's vision. "We went into this to help women, not to have this great capital growth," he would later explain.

Charlotte put the best possible spin on the meeting, one that was consistent with her own vision. In a memo to her staff, she wrote, "In our discussion yesterday, it was my impression that Scott and Lea were willing to support my views and not require any changes." She said the clinic had not been asked to compromise the counseling, or to become more of a hierarchy. But she had agreed "to work on" certain streamlining measures regarding overhead, salaries, benefits, cutting away the fat, getting leaner--but not meaner. "I think we can address what we need to do," she wrote, "without it being a terrible experience."

At the same time that Charlotte was finessing the management study, a widening fissure threatened to destroy the clinic culture from within. Lindsay Thorpe was the first business manager at the clinic and a personal favorite of Dr. Braun. Thorpe declined comment for this story. But court records detail how her troubled personal life became entangled in the web of clinic culture.

Lindsey was having marital problems and grew afraid she might lose her children. Court records show that while under treatment for severe depression, she attempted suicide in May 1992 by trying to asphyxiate herself in her garage. She did, however, return to work the next day.

Morgen Goodroe learned of the suicide attempt through a mutual friend and brought it up at an administrative meeting. The ensuing discussion included allegations that Lindsay was abusing drugs, though she would later deny she had.

Lindsay was subsequently confronted by the administration regarding reports of her drug use and attempted suicide. As was customary in the clinic culture, she was asked to share her feelings. She declined to discuss her suicide attempt other than to say it had nothing to do with her job performance. She was in therapy now, on medication and feeling better.

Yet Lindsay's troubles were far from over. After a heated argument with her husband on Father's Day, records show, she voluntarily committed herself into the Richardson Medical Center to receive intensive treatment for her depression. She only stayed a week, but during that week, the staff at Routh Street held a meeting and explored their own feelings about Lindsay's situation.

On June 24, 1992, while Lindsay was still in the hospital, Charlotte informed her that the Routh Street board of directors had met and decided to give her an unpaid leave of absence until July 15 so she could concentrate on her personal life. According to Charlotte, Lindsay was angered by this decision, refused to take the leave, and said, "you'll have to fire me first." Two days later, Charlotte did just that.

Lindsay was outraged. She had been released by her doctor to return to work; she needed to work because her husband had just left her. But Charlotte stood firm, feeling Lindsay's job performance had been compromised by her personal problems and her unwillingness to follow the agreements of the clinic culture.

On September 3, 1993, Lindsay sued Routh Street for wrongful termination and invasion of privacy. The allegations she raised put the entire clinic culture on trial. No one had ever publicly questioned the rules that the clinic played by, but now Lindsay was alleging that the clinic invaded her privacy, discriminated against her, violated her rights. She alleged the clinic had no legitimate business interest in discussing her attempted suicide and personal problems. She contended that her "depression, emotional instability, and adjustment disorder" were due "in large part to the controlling, interfering, and manipulating manner in which Routh Street was run." She likened the experience to "belonging to a cult."

In the months that followed, the lawsuit just refused to go away, stalking Dr. Braun like some anti-abortion extremist. For hours, he would sit in depositions as discussions about paganistic rituals and drug use shocked his conscience. Even if the charges were groundless, what would a Dallas jury do with those facts? One of his attorneys told him that in his 17 years of practice, he had never heard such claims made in a lawsuit. The litigation had already cost $60,000.

How much longer could he bankroll Charlotte's feminist dreams? How much longer could he wait to implement the management study? Things had gotten out of control.

Something had to be done.
Because Lea Braun was such a private person, he had always let Charlotte do his talking for him. But this would no longer continue.

On June 28, 1993, Charlotte publicly aired her evolving views about abortion. "We have learned a great deal from the movement that calls itself pro-life," Charlotte told the Dallas Morning News. "We (the pro-choice movement) were hiding from women some of the pieces of the truth about abortion that were threatening...It is a kind of killing, and most women seeking abortion know that."

Charlotte didn't speak precipitously or out of anger. Her words were calculated to reach out to both sides of the abortion debate. Both the pro-choice and pro-life movements appeared more entrenched than ever before, more vitriolic in their rhetoric. Charlotte hoped to bridge this ever widening chasm and work toward a healing.

But the reaction to Charlotte's public pronouncement was swift--and the response certain. Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, was quoted as saying she "would never tell someone they are killing through abortion"; instead, she would say "they were terminating a stage of fetal development and potential life." In a pernicious war of words, how could Charlotte Taft adopt the language of the enemy?

Planned Parenthood of Dallas and Northeast Texas immediately yanked its referrals to Routh Street-- nearly 15 percent of the clinic's patient load. "We strenuously disagree that the pro-choice movement has been dishonest with women," says Jim Roderick, the group's president. "The article was a final awareness point for us in how they were serving the patients we were referring to them."

"She committed heresy," claims Bill Price, now the head of Texans United For Life. "She had a more enlightened vision for the abortion movement, and she ran headlong into the old-style operators. I knew they would squeeze her financially."

Undaunted, Charlotte appealed to Planned Parenthood to re-evaluate its decision. In September 1993, Roderick agreed to send an on-site team to observe the clinic's counseling techniques. "I thought, this is wonderful," recalls Charlotte. "Not only will they continue the referrals, but they are going to ask us to teach them." Routh Street had already become something of a prototype for a group of 20 or so like-minded clinics around the country called the November Gang. Here was yet another opportunity to further its evangelical mission.

But Planned Parenthood didn't see it that way. "Our major bone of contention was that the counseling was too directive," says Roderick. "We had a problem with the clinic raising issues for patients who would not normally raise them for themselves." The referrals would not resume.

Charlotte dismissed the action. "Planned Parenthood did all this without one patient complaint," she comments now. "We had been on their referral list for 14 years." More than 15,000 abortions had been performed at Routh Street since its inception. And not one malpractice case had ever been filed against the clinic.

But Charlotte felt the Morning News article gave Roderick the excuse to do what he had wanted to do for years: Planned Parenthood began offering its own abortion services in Dallas in September 1994.

Lea Braun was angry over the loss of business. And he blamed Charlotte. "We lost 15 to 20 patients a week because of her political stance. I felt like she shouldn't have made those statements to the press." No longer did Charlotte speak for Dr. Braun--as a matter of fact, he barely spoke to her at all.

But something critical had changed. No longer did Dr. Braun have to worry that if he moved against Charlotte, he would incur the wrath of the pro-choice community. She was no longer its spokesperson. Charlotte had undercut her own base of support.

Michael J. Collins is an all-American-looking, sandy-haired lawyer in his early 40s, dedicated to his kids, his country, his clients. A saber encased in a shadow box on his office wall symbolizes his heritage as a Texas A&M cadet. But to a New Age feminist, it's a vestige of the dead white male patriarchy.

Mike Collins was Dr. Braun's new voice. Scott Hudson describes him as something else entirely: "an axeman hired to do for Lea Braun what he couldn't do for himself." If Dr. Braun decided he wanted to fire Charlotte, implement the management study, sell her the clinic, Mike Collins would be the vehicle to fulfill his will.

For years, Dr. Braun had told Charlotte the clinic would be hers one day. As early as January 1992, Charlotte pressed him for a price. He seemed ambivalent. He did eventually tell her, however, that there was a problem with the corporate stock, and he would have to resolve it before he could sell the clinic to anyone.

In April 1994, Scott Hudson was removed as chairman of the Routh Street board. Dr. Braun asked Collins, who was handling the stock problem, to oversee the Lindsay Thorpe lawsuit. "There were a number of accusations being made that were beyond the norm of a wrongful-termination case," says Collins. "By reviewing the invasion-of-privacy issues, I noticed that a management team had come in several years before and its suggestions had only been partially implemented." The major issue still outstanding, and the one which seemed to be driving the lawsuit, was the possible exposure created by "personal discussions in the business place."

"It was more than just an opportunity to share your feelings," says Collins. "It was a requirement to share that gave me certain concerns."

As Dr. Braun's designated surrogate, Collins viewed the clinic as awash in a sea of medical-legal liability. The management study was a means of reducing that exposure, a way to make the clinic run more like a corporate enterprise. Consistent with that report, he viewed the clinic as "a service business," the counseling as a limited resource, and Charlotte's political activities as fiscally irresponsible. He felt Charlotte was getting paid far too much ($47,000 a year) and Dr. Braun far too little. Routh Street had a finite mission to be performed with finite resources. It was a medical clinic intended to address women's needs, not a woman's center trying to transform their lives.

On December 15, 1994, Charlotte met with Mike Collins at his office. Dr. Braun was there, but said little.

Collins insisted that she now implement the management study in total. Charlotte refused, saying it compromised her authority to manage the clinic. "I told them I could not work in a hierarchical place where no one could express their feelings. It was the opposite of everything I had ever done."

She told them they either needed to agree on terms for her to purchase the clinic or she would be forced to resign. They agreed to a timetable: in the next 30 days, she would search for a new medical director and they would decide on the conditions of sale. Collins did, however, extract one concession: there would be no more staff meetings--business or personal--during this time period. Charlotte figured she had no choice if she wanted to keep them at the bargaining table.

The next day, Charlotte phoned Dr. Braun. Good news, she told him. Dr. West, the other physician at the clinic, had agreed to be her medical director. She was now ready to come to terms.

Two weeks later, on January 3, 1995, Mike Collins relayed Dr. Braun's offer: he would sell her the clinic for $500,000, payable over three years. He would carry the note. She would assume all liability, including the pending lawsuit. Dr. Braun would retain one representative on the board during the payout to make certain his interests were being protected.

Charlotte was unenthused. The idea of Dr. Braun retaining a seat on the board sounded like sabotage to Charlotte. Although the clinic had realized some profit in the last few years, it was nothing compared to the kind of money she would need to meet this new obligation. And the idea of compromising her vision to maximize profits, as always, made her pause.

In the meantime, Mike Collins was proceeding ahead full throttle. If Charlotte did buy the clinic, it would be hers to do as she wished. But if she resigned, Dr. Braun had his lieutenants in place. Mary Jones and Kassie Gossom were two clinic staffers who were loyal to Dr. Braun and stood ready to run the clinic as a business.

On January 25, 1995, Mike Collins convened an emergency meeting of the board of directors at his office. Dr. Braun was present but remained silent. The following day, said Collins, a mediation session was scheduled for the Thorpe lawsuit. He listed the major complaints Lindsay had against the clinic. He wanted to be able to "state certain things as facts" to Lindsay, that "policies she felt hurt by were no longer in place." He wanted to be able to tell her that staff meetings were all business now, that discussions of personal feelings were a thing of the past; that The Form had been eliminated, and the management report fully implemented.

Collins went around the room and asked each board member individually: "Can you go along with this?" Kassie Gossom, the business manager aligned with Dr. Braun, said yes. Sallie Stratton, a supervisor aligned with Charlotte, reluctantly agreed. Then Collins turned to Charlotte. She saw this confrontation as an ultimatum. If she didn't agree, she felt she would be fired. And she wasn't ready to leave the clinic. She could live with this, dance around the management study until they came to terms on the purchase. "No problem," she told Collins.

The lawyer had done his job. With the buyout as the carrot and the lawsuit as the stick, Collins kept Charlotte off balance and got his way. The next day the lawsuit was settled, says Collins, for an undisclosed amount.

Pressing his advantage, Collins called an emergency meeting of the board the following day, January 27. Charlotte was sick that day but came to the clinic with only 30 minutes notice. Collins began the meeting, saying now that the lawsuit had been settled, they could get on with business.

He announced that since Dr. Braun was the owner, he would now be chairman of the board. His wife, Ginny Braun, was also made a board member. Her job would be to interview each staff person, work with them, determine what their needs were. Collins wanted to address the staff immediately, introduce Ginny, himself--inform the staff of all the changes.

Although Collins says he wasn't stacking the board against Charlotte, she knew at that moment she had to leave. She couldn't stand there in front of her staff and admit that she had agreed to this. "It would have been a desecration of the staff," recalls Charlotte. "Like giving them a Trojan horse."

She convinced Collins to wait a few days; most of the staff was still in surgery. The delay would give her the opportunity to speak with her staff and explain why she was tendering her resignation. "There was no way my values and my vision were going to be honored. It was going to be an excruciating experience for me to continue."

Mike Collins says that Charlotte's resignation came as a "quasi" surprise to him. What must have surprised him even more was the faxed counter-offer for the purchase of the clinic that he received from Charlotte's lawyer on January 30, the same day she resigned: total price: $250,000, with the first $75,000 to be paid at closing, and the rest to be paid within one-year. No outside board members, just a one year no-recourse note to Dr. Braun.

Collins' response was as quick as it was terse. "My client has decided it would not be in his best interest to finance this purchase...The clinic is not going to be sold at a distressed fire-sale basis. The clinic will remain a viable business entity."

Earlier that morning, Dr. Braun received Charlotte's formal letter of resignation: "I am writing with deep sadness to make my formal resignation as Director of the Routh Street Women's Clinic...We both know that it will not work for me to be here with the changes you are making...I have given my heart to this undertaking and have been richly rewarded in learning and love...What I have given and received cannot be measured."

When I phoned Routh Street's new director, Mary Jones, and asked her if there had been any changes in philosophy at the clinic, she remarked, "We are just doing the same thing we always did. There haven't been any changes. It's just business as usual."

What she failed to tell me was that five people had followed Charlotte out the door; three had been fired, and two quit of their own accord. Two more quit recently, after my conversation with Jones. Ginny Braun did interview the staff as planned, but her inquiry focused on whether anyone harbored negative feelings toward Dr. Braun.

In Charlotte's letter of resignation, she asked Dr. Braun to "withdraw any materials with my name on them from any public use right away." Because these included counseling materials, Mike Collins and Ginny Braun used her request as an opportunity to review the entire counseling program. A "Ph.D therapist" was hired who later determined that the homework and counseling forms were too suggestive, might bring up feelings patients would not otherwise have. Neither are currently in use.

"In the new improved clinic, less information is better," said one counselor who wishes to remain anonymous. "Every time I want to send someone home, I can feel Dr. Braun glaring at me."

"If they are so worried about liability," says another staffer, "doing an abortion on a woman who doesn't want one is what's going to get them sued."

Although Dr. Braun says counseling is now optional, no one I spoke with at the clinic seems to know this for certain. Yet with the counseling toned down and Charlotte gone, Dr. Braun says the clinic will again seek referrals from Planned Parenthood.

Charlotte Taft has lost her platform; Dallas has lost a voice of reason in an escalating political war. Yet she claims she is not done with abortion.

Maybe she will write a book about her experiences. Maybe she will move to another city--someplace green and mountainous and placid. Once there, she may even buy an abortion clinic. "If you want to be a real pioneer, you have to be the owner," she reflects. "Most real pioneers who are not owners get fired."

Charlotte still has trouble talking about Routh Street without her eyes welling up in tears. "I would have never left the clinic in my whole life," she says. "I always acted like it was mine. I just forgot to buy it.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.