To some, she is a pawn; to others, an inspiration


GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Eating lunch at a McDonald's a few miles from home, Lori Watts and her four children attract little attention. Tabytha thumbs through a blue spiral notebook between bites of her caramel sundae, while her younger sister, Donna Joy, jumps around in the ball pit.

But instead of the usual teen-age doodles, Tabytha's notebook is full of photos of fetuses, which the 14-year-old shows to pregnant strangers when she attends abortion protests. And in the battle over late-term abortions, Donna Joy is much more than a lively 11-year-old. As a baby born with a brain so malformed that her mother said doctors encouraged aborting the pregnancy at seven months, the little girl with the bright blue eyes has become a symbol.

Early this month, when President Bush signed into law the Partial Birth Abortion Ban of 2003, the Watts family was there - in Washington and at the center of the national abortion debate, where they have been for more than half of Donna Joy's life.

To the ban's supporters, Donna Joy is proof that medical science can be wrong and that life should be the only choice, even for the most fragile of the not-yet-born. Opponents, however, see a child being exploited to further erode reproductive rights.

Donna Joy's picture has graced the Senate floor. Her story is plastered on the Web. Her presence in the Senate chamber six years ago so angered Sen. Barbara Boxer that the California Democrat demanded the little girl leave.

She has hugged talk-show host Phil Donahue and knows Fox News commentator Tony Snow. To her, Sen. Rick Santorum is "the candy man," a friend who lets her dive into his pockets for Hershey kisses. The Pennsylvania Republican returns the affection, calling Donna Joy "a great inspiration."

The signing of the bill was a vindication in a family crusade that started six years ago, when Donna Joy's father, Donald Watts, caught a snippet of the abortion debates on television and heard some Democrats suggest that babies suffering from the same injuries afflicting Donna Joy had no chance to live. He told his wife he doubted that anyone in Congress would listen to a poor couple from Dundalk, but they had to tell Donna Joy's story anyway.

Lori Watts agreed.

"I don't think that it's OK to put someone to death because they're inconvenient," she said. "When you engage in an activity that brings children, you have to be ready to accept a child who will have handicaps. You made the choice to try. We were poor, and we managed."

For years, the couple, both 38, looked as though they might not manage. Donald Watts' salary as a corrections officer at a Hagerstown prison could hardly cover Donna Joy's therapy and medical bills for her eight brain surgeries, which doctors had to perform because of excess fluid on the brain.

Though they had insurance, expenses increased, and with three other daughters to care for, the family eventually declared bankruptcy. At one point, the family bought a tiny casket and a burial plot.

Donna Joy had learned to walk and could speak, but at age 2 she suffered an infection that wiped out her memory, Lori Watts said. She threw tantrums and refused to eat or be held. Desperate to calm her one night, Lori Watts grabbed a tape and put it in the VCR.

The tape was of actor Scott Bakula's now-canceled series Quantum Leap, which featured the song "Somewhere in the Night." When the song played with Bakula's face on the screen, Donna Joy let her mother hold and feed her. Her physical therapist started to play the tape during their sessions. Though everyone tired of the song, Donna Joy's motor skills improved.

Afterward, Donna Joy and her mother took a train to Hollywood, where they met the man who produced the show's soundtrack. Though they didn't get to meet Bakula, the actor sends an autographed photo of himself to Donna Joy on her birthday. This year's photo reads: "To Donna Joy, Happy Birthday. Hope you had fun at the White House."

The Bakula story reached the papers in Hagerstown, where the family lived at the time. Local officials took an interest in the little girl's story, and in 1996 the city proclaimed her fifth birthday "Donna Joy Day."

But it wasn't until 1997, when Boxer asked Donna Joy to leave the Senate floor, that the family's once-private story became public. That was the year that Lori and Donald Watts, who had always been against abortion, became activists.

By then, they had moved across the Pennsylvania line and into the Greencastle basement of Joseph Thornton, a physician with a ministry to help the poor. Thornton, who became Donna Joy's doctor, helped the family buy their home. In 1997, the family discovered that their new senator, Santorum, had sponsored a ban on the procedure opponents call "partial-birth abortion," an operation that about 3,000 women undergo annually. The senator heard about Donna Joy from their Hagerstown congressman, Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, and invited the girl to join him during the debates. Because Senate rules say those in the gallery must be at least 6, Donna Joy watched from Santorum's office after Boxer called her presence "exploitive." In her stead, he held up a poster-size photo of the smiling little girl in a polka-dotted dress.

"What they wanted to do was kill this baby by stabbing her in the base of the skull and suctioning her brains out," the senator told colleagues. "And Lori and Donnie Watts said no."

The bill failed to pass in 1997, but Donna Joy captured the country's attention. During a Good Morning America segment, a reporter called her a "pawn" in the late-term abortion battle. In a headline, the right-wing Web site WorldNet Daily called her "the little girl Barbara Boxer tried to hide," while the Concerned Women for America wrote that Donna Joy's "death sentence" was commuted.

To Planned Parenthood Maryland Chief Executive John Nugent, who learned about Donna Joy through news updates from the opposing side, the little girl as symbol rings hollow.

"I don't know how she becomes a poster child for something that was legal and that her mother had the right to choose or not choose," he said. "She had a choice. She had the baby."

Santorum disagrees. "Her mother had to fight to have her born, had to fight to have someone who would just deliver her," the senator said in an interview this week. "Donna Joy was a great inspiration to me to fight for those children whom the world did not see as perfect."

Maryland Defend Life President Jack Ames says Donna Joy's life is an example of how human beings should not "play God" with their unborn children.

"With abortion, they're doing the same thing that Hitler did in Nazi Germany," said Ames, an engineer who runs the organization billed as "Catholic, pro-life and pro-family" from his Towson home. "If we do what's right, God will provide, just like God has provided for Donna Joy."

The admiration runs both ways. The family is so fond of Ames that they've named their pet hamster after him.

This summer, Tabytha spent her first weekend away for her parents in Ocean City with Ames' group. On the trip, she said, she changed two women's minds with the help of her pictures.

"That's why God put me here," Tabytha said. "That's what he wants me to do."

Sitting in McDonald's, the blond girl hugs her notebook the way her younger sister hugs Bakula photos. In addition to fetus photos, Tabytha's book includes a brochure, "Conceived in Rape: A Story of Hope" and a drawing of the Virgin Mary which her sisters helped color. Above it floats the question: "What if Mary had an abortion?"

The youngest daughter, Shaylah, 8, likes to quote Thomas Paine - "These are the times that try men's souls" - and has finally learned to say "partial-birth abortion," much to Tabytha's delight. The oldest, 16-year-old Chrissy, shies from publicity but says she is proud of her sisters. "I told a friend of mine, I know why Donna Joy was born. I know why God made her. It's because she's saving babies," Chrissy said. "And Tabytha saves babies, too."

A few years ago, inspired by Donna Joy's struggles, Lori Watts went to nursing school. She now home-schools her children in part to involve them in the family's political battle.

But Donna Joy does not talk so easily to strangers. Instead, she shows photos and news clippings that tell her story. There are photos of an infant swaddled in tubes, and photos of a toddler wearing a therapy helmet over her head. In more recent photos, she wears her karate uniform and a white, puffy dress she calls her "wedding dress." The white dress photo is on a flier promoting Santorum's bill. Next to it is the question: "Would you abort her?"

Though she can't read or write much more than her name, Donna Joy is far more active than anyone expected. She runs, draws, dances and teases her siblings. Thornton, her doctor, said she functions on a 7-year-old's level - remarkable, considering that children born with abnormalities like hers often do not survive.

For him, Donna Joy is much more than a poster. She is his children's playmate, a little girl whose presence proves doctors don't always have all the answers. "We're not always able to predict what things are going to be. We have a saying in our training: Never say never; never say always."

He paused. "I'm a country family doctor, and I don't expect to see anything like this again."

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