At all hours, strangers phone Anne Nicol Gaylor's Madison home, always desperate.

The caller one recent morning was a middle-aged woman with a 14-year-old pregnant daughter.

"What clinic will she be using?" asked Gaylor, 83, jotting down the response and the cost of a second-trimester abortion ($875).

"If we helped with $300, do you think you could find the rest?" Gaylor asked.

After the call, Gaylor opened a checkbook for the Women's Medical Fund, a Madison nonprofit that has helped pay for abortions for 34 years. Gaylor has written every check for every abortion.

This was No. 18,986.

Controversial figure

Gaylor is well-known for leading the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison for decades. Less known is her work with the Women's Medical Fund, which she co-founded in 1976, the same year she helped start the foundation.

The fund's sole purpose is to pay for abortions. Last year, it paid out $162,202, about 75 percent of which came from individual donors, the rest from foundations.

There is no office and no paid staff. Gaylor, whose title is administrator, takes all of the calls — some 800 a year — at her dining room table on her home phone, the same one her four children and two granddaughters reach her on. There is no answering machine.

"It would burden anyone else to deal with all those calls," said her husband, Paul Gaylor, 84, a former vice president for a building maintenance company. "But she listens to every woman and cares for every single one of them."

The phone number isn't widely circulated. Women get referred from clinics, doctors and nurses.

"When you give money away, people find you," said Anne Nicol Gaylor, a petite woman with grayish-white hair and a soft voice.

'All about the child'

The Supreme Court legalized abortion three years before the fund began, but many women simply couldn't afford the procedure, said Bob West, 82, of Madison, a professor emeritus of chemistry and co-founder of the fund with his wife, Margaret West, now deceased, and Gaylor. The three had become friends through the Madison chapter of the group Zero Population Growth.

"For me, it was all about the child," he said. "In the kind of world I want to live in, all children would be wanted."

Gaylor said her motivation came from a doctor who told her about a girl who was raped by her father and had to drop out of high school to raise the child. "Those kind of stories are so numerous and so tragic," Gaylor said.

She sends out fundraising letters at least once a year, often tying the appeal to a significant event, such as Mother's Day.

"Of the 632 women the fund has helped so far this year, 147 were teenagers," Gaylor wrote to donors last Thanksgiving. "Of these, nine were only 13 years old, and one, not yet a teen, was just 12!"

Gaylor used the occasion of her 80th birthday to hold a fundraising party for the fund at the Madison home of Dr. Dennis Christensen, an abortion provider who has since retired. Gaylor sent invitations far afield, including one to a well-to-do woman in California she'd never met but who had donated to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The woman sent her regrets and a $20,000 check.

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The other side

Anti-abortion activists have long been aware of the fund.

"It's a stark example of misguided compassion that serves as discrimination of the worst kind," said Peggy Hamill, state director of Pro-Life Wisconsin. "To finance extermination of pre-born children because those children would have been brought up poor is deplorable."

Gaylor said no one is chasing down low-income pregnant woman. They're simply the ones who come to her. "If that's discrimination, so be it," she said. She thinks critics would view the fund differently if they heard the calls.

"We get calls, too," counters Sue Armacost, legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life. "We understand how heartbreaking some situations are, but the answer is not urging and assisting a woman to destroy her child."

Others call Gaylor a hero.

"She's been on the front lines of two of the most contentious issues in our society, what I call the two A's — abortion and atheism," said Nora Cusack of Madison, a retired business owner and board treasurer of the Women's Medical Fund. "It's astonishing how fearless she is."

A way with language

Gaylor may look like Betty White, but her words still carry the socko punch that once led an audience member at the taping of a Philadelphia talk show to rush her from behind and put her in a chokehold.

On large families: "How presumptuous of someone to think the world is interested in a half-dozen or eight or 10 of their kids."

On anti-abortion activists: "They're religiously motivated, not intellectually motivated."

On abortion: "A blessing."

Gaylor said she has never had an abortion but once witnessed the procedure when a woman asked her to be in the room for support. It did not change her views, she said.

On the phone with strangers, Gaylor is gentle but pointed in her questioning.

"The guy who got you pregnant, is he helping you pay?" she asked a 19-year-old woman from Sheboygan with two children and a third on the way.

"What will you do next time so this doesn't happen again?" she asked a 25-year-old woman from Madison.

Looking ahead

The last three years have been tough on Gaylor's health. A blood clot took the vision in her left eye, and she has an inflammatory disorder that causes muscle soreness and stiffness.

She retired from the presidency of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2004. It is now run by her daughter and son-in-law, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.

The board of directors of the Women's Medical Fund has not discussed a succession plan, said West, who has been board president since its start. "It's something I probably need to talk to her about," he said, adding that he would defer to her wishes.

Gaylor does not mention slowing down. "My regret is that we don't have $1 million a year to give away so that we could help more women," she said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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