A woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state in a nursing facility, unable to communicate, for 14 years has given birth. The case has drawn attention to the frequency of sexual abuse of vulnerable people in facilities like this, and the failures of the system to protect them.
After a near drowning over a decade ago, a woman (whose name has not been released) has been in a persistent vegetative state at an Arizona facility run by Hacienda HealthCare. What must have long been a traumatic situation for her family became much worse when, on December 29, staff noticed her moaning, and on investigation found that she was in labor. The baby was born soon after and is reportedly healthy.
No one had previously recognized she was pregnant, which alone calls into question the quality of care she was receiving. Police are investigating how she became impregnated while clearly incapable of giving consent. In the meantime, the facility has adopted a policy that male staff cannot be in a room with female patients without an accompanying female employee.
In popular perception, people in persistent vegetative states have no knowledge of what is happening to them, but while they are are not properly aware of their surroundings, many can still respond to some degree to stimulation. The chance of recovery diminishes with time, but has been known to happen even after long periods.
As the moaning indicates, the abused woman was able to feel pain, possibly including the sexual abuse that initiated the pregnancy. At this stage, no one, other than the abuser, knows how often she was raped.
Sexual abuse of people in health care facilities is a horror from which the world has turned its eyes away for far too long. It is estimated people with disabilities are three times as likely to suffer sexual abuse as the rest of the population. Slowly that's changing, for example, there is a campaign in Australia to establish a Royal Commission into the problem.
Besides the horrendous cruelty of a sexual assault the woman could neither fight nor report, pregnancy in her condition carried specific dangers. Azfamily.com interviewed local gynecologist Dr Greg Marchand, who told them the chief difference came during labor since the woman was unable to push. The facility's lack of awareness of her condition also prevented safe intervention. “It could have been an active labor for hours or even days. This easily could have resulted in a fetal death,” Marchand said.
Sexual violence experts have noted perpetrators seldom have only one victim, raising the obvious question of how many others may have been abused. The possibility that some were able to report their abuse, but were not believed, is now being considered.