To some, she is a pawn

to others, an inspiration

Abortion: When lawmakers successfully pushed to ban a late-term procedure, they spoke of how Donna Joy Watts beat the odds.

November 29, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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