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Blessed by the dozen

Roe v. Wade | For Barbara Curtis, raising 12 children-including three adopted ones with Down syndrome-was coming full circle

Would you be interested in adopting another child with Down syndrome?" Barbara Curtis immediately knew how to answer the woman from the adoption agency: "No way!" As the 52-year-old homeschool mother of 11 children-including one biological child and two adopted children with Down syndrome-she was exhausted.

But when Curtis hung up the phone, her 12-year-old daughter Sophia confronted her: "Mom, I can't believe you said no like that. That's not what you've taught us." Curtis called the agency back and told them she'd changed her mind. With the adoption of Justin Li, she became the mother of a dozen children.

"I have a very childlike and simple faith," Curtis said. "I don't worry about the future. I just do what God calls me to do now." A round-faced woman with a circa-1969 flower tattooed on her right hand and food stains on her black pants, she admits that neither she nor her family is perfect-but she says caring for children with special needs is "the best thing that ever happened to me."

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For Curtis, adoption was coming full circle. She grew up in a broken home, spent time in foster care, suffered sexual abuse, and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. She was a radical feminist and antiwar protestor in Washington, D.C., and eventually moved to Marin County, Calif., where only 2 percent of the population was Christian.

Curtis then was a pagan herself, so when she aborted her baby in 1977 her conscience remained unmoved: "It was just like going to the dentist. ... When you don't have any idea that your own life is sacred, there's no way you can imagine an unborn baby's life is either."

In 1980, she turned to Alcoholics Anonymous, secular therapy, and the New Age movement. She and her husband Tripp-also a spiritual seeker-began to believe they could create their own Norman Rockwell-style dream. For a while, that dream appeared to be coming true. They started a successful business and had five healthy children. But their marriage deteriorated into constant arguments.

In 1987, Curtis wanted a divorce. In a last-ditch effort, she and Tripp attended Family Life Ministries' Christian marriage conference. A picture of Jesus with a few other gurus hung in her house, but she had never considered Him the Son of God. When she heard the gospel, she and her husband began to weep. "The moment my politics changed was the moment I accepted Christ. I couldn't write a treatise on Christianity that day, but I found out I didn't believe in reincarnation, I didn't believe in abortion anymore," she said. "God opened up that dark, musty closet of my heart and let the light shine in."

Six years after her conversion, Curtis discovered her eighth child, Jonathan, had an extra chromosome, a condition called Trisomy 21, or Down syndrome. Ninety-three percent of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Despite her age, Curtis had declined prenatal testing, saying she wanted any baby God decided to give her. Jonny's post-birth diagnosis was "the beginning of an incredible journey."

Over the next 15 months, Jonny was constantly in and out of the hospital, an hour's drive from their house. Curtis was simultaneously caring for eight other children, including Jonathan's newborn sister Maddy. A treatment would appear to work for three weeks, and then Jonny would be back in the hospital again.

After a near-deadly bout of pneumonia, Jonny had been home a couple of weeks when the doctor called again to say he needed another surgery. Curtis hung up the phone, threw herself face-first on the floor, and banged her fists into the ground, screaming at God: "I've behaved, done everything right, accepted trials like Job. I'm sick of trying to be strong, sick of trying to be perfect."

That incident was the last time Jonathan was hospitalized. Curtis concluded, "You can't be phony with God. It's OK to be hurt, to get angry. He is so much bigger, and I believe He wanted to see me broken and completely dependent on Him."

Today, at 19, Jonny sports a leather jacket and opens doors for his mom. Bring up a topic he likes-photographs, acting, sports, or babies, especially his 13 nephews and nieces-and a smile will ripple across his face. He laughs, delighting in an inside joke: "I like bowling ... hanging out with my girlfriend."

"You wish," Curtis says, laughing. Their family "delays dating," but she says Jonathan is still an "incurable romantic."

He's a good swing dancer, too: He shows off his moves with a bow and pretends to kiss an invisible lady's hand. Though speech is still a struggle for Jonny and he can't read or write, he uses an iPad and has a Facebook account. He's been in 30 plays, carries the cross as the altar boy during Catholic Mass, and volunteers at a Habitat for Humanity store near the family's Northern Virginia home.

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