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Should This Pregnancy Be Terminated?

Tue., Feb. 6, 1996

Just more than 10 years ago, a 19-year-old woman was involved in a terrible car accident. She was left a quadriplegic and nearly comatose. After the crash, she could do little more than open her eyes and emit an occasional moan.

Despite her awful condition, her parents decided that medicine ought do whatever was possible to keep her alive. Now, the 29-year-old woman is about to become the unknowing mother of a baby.

Last February, the woman was placed in a private nursing home in upstate New York. Late last month, the nursing staff noticed something puzzling: The young woman’s stomach was growing.

She was pregnant. Someone had raped her.

The police suspect a man who worked at the nursing home and is known to have molested another female patient.

The ordeal of the woman’s parents seems beyond belief. They are dealing not only with a severely disabled daughter who cannot think or communicate but also with one who has been raped and is pregnant.

Recently, they decided they want their daughter to deliver the baby. She is being cared for by a high-risk pregnancy team at a large teaching hospital.

It is hard to raise ethical questions about the situation. The parents have been through hell, and they deserve both privacy and support as they try to cope with the unbelievable sequence of events.

But there are important ethical questions that have to be asked.

Should the pregnancy be continued?

I have talked with a number of medical experts in obstetrics about whether a woman who has been nearly comatose for more than 10 years can have a baby safely. They say they do not know. Pregnancy could kill both the mother and the fetus. An exceedingly frail body kept alive by a feeding tube might not be able to take the stress of providing sufficient support to a developing fetus.

Natural childbirth is out of the question. The fetus will have to be removed surgically by Caesarean section. That poses another risk of death for the mother.

It seems unlikely, but what if, by some miracle, the baby is born healthy and the mother lives?

I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to try to cope with the fact that you can never know or communicate with your mother, that she had no say at all about your birth and that your father is a rapist.

Normally, when people are unable to indicate their wishes about their medical care, the place to turn is the patients’ families. For more than 10 years, this woman’s family has tried to act in her best interests.

But the fetus changes that equation.

The parents’ emotional conflict is too much to ask anyone, even the most loving and responsible parent, to bear alone. These parents are trying to weigh the life of a daughter stolen from them against the welfare of a baby who holds some promise, however faint and however bizarre, of redemption.

The pregnancy should not proceed without an independent review of the circumstances by a court. The circumstances are so unusual and the conflicts, risks and dangers so numerous that someone in addition to the parents should be involved in the decision-making.

It is virtually impossible to imagine a court ordering a pregnancy to end against parental wishes. But a court should make sure the parents have thought through every aspect of this situation before they take their daughter and possibly a grandchild into completely uncharted moral waters.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Art Caplan King Features Syndicate

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