It had the makings of a lively television bout. In one corner, D.C. Mayor Marion "Why Don't You Stop Having All Those Babies?" Barry; in the other Jacqueline "I Don't Want to Mess Up My Body With Birth Control" Williams.

But the issue never really got joined. The mayor spent most of the Phil Donahue show in a defensive clinch, embracing the responsibility of government to help poor people out of their poverty. Williams, her entire brood in the studio with her, used her time to insist on her right to have as many children as she chooses.

Neither the main combatants, the host nor his guest panel seemed able to focus on the manifest link between Williams' poverty and her outsized family.

Surely it is true that the 35-year-old Williams would have a much better prospect of supporting her 14 children (13 by a previous marriage) if the family were smaller. Surely there is ground for challenging her contention that it is "nobody's business" how many children she has, when she is forced to look to the public to help feed and house them. Surely her whole life is evidence of a mindset that helps to make poverty more intractable.

But these questions were never really addressed on the Donahue Show. Instead, we had a welfare-rights activist insisting that the relevant question was not how to change individual behavior but how to "change the economic system that makes people poor"; a Harvard professor of social policy demolishing the straw man that having babies is some sort of "get-rich-quick scheme," and an assortment of charts proving that there are nearly as many whites as blacks on welfare.

These are all interesting questions, but they had relatively little to do with the case at hand.

Williams first came to public attention when Mayor Barry mentioned, during an April news conference, that a woman with 14 children cooped up in three rooms of a welfare shelter had come to him demanding to know why the city didn't find her a better place to live. "I asked her, 'Why don't you stop having all these babies?' " She later called reporters to say she was the woman he was talking about. She demanded that he apologize.

Donahue spent much of the first segment of his show trying to elicit that apology -- again missing the mark.

Maybe it was the wrong case for a useful discussion of welfare policy. Williams is hardly typical of the welfare problem. She is married to the father of her youngest child and was married to the late father of the other 13, the oldest of whom, now 18, is pregnant, husbandless and unemployed. The family was on public assistance even before her first husband died in 1983. Despite her contention that she is "not asking anybody" to take care of her children and her insistence that she, too, is a taxpayer (her present husband is employed), it is a virtual certainty that her family will never be self-supporting.

The family receives in excess of $1,300 a month in transfer payments, more than $400 of it from welfare. Although a private citizen has offered to renovate a seven-bedroom house and make it available to her at market rates, $780 of the monthly rental of $1,300 will be provided by the city's Tenants Assistance Program, a subsidy based on income and family size.

There is no way for the taxpayers to shed the burden of supporting the Williams family. The children are here, and they have to be supported. But that doesn't begin to answer the public-policy questions.

Most Americans are glad to furnish assistance to families who fall into poverty through bad luck: death, family breakup or job loss. The objections arise when the poverty is the result of repeated -- insistent -- bad judgment.

Williams seems not to understand that her own disastrous choices are principally responsible for her family's perilous plight. And she is perfectly willing to go on making the same mindless choices. "I would love to have more {children}," she told the Donahue audience. "If I can have 14 more, I'll have 14 more."

It's "none of your business," she says. Just get off her case and keep the checks coming. ASSOCIATED PRESS