Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Rapist Impregnates Comatose Woman in Nursing Home

Ethics: Victim, six months pregnant, has been in a coma for 10 years. Family rejects abortion.

February 18, 1996|BEN DOBBIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — She is six months pregnant, but for her there will be no baby showers, no gleeful decoration of the nursery, no stubborn search for just the right name.

She has been in a coma for 10 of her 29 years--and she was in a coma last summer, living in a nursing home, when she was impregnated by a rapist.

Her parents have ruled out abortion. So her pregnancy progresses, leading to a joyous event from which she will derive no joy.

Her own life had started with so much promise. She was bright, attractive and fun-loving, but also straight-laced and thoughtful, classmates said. "She was very caring if somebody was going through a difficult time, just sensitive to other people's needs," said Kathleen Vergo, now a pharmacist.

A National Honor Society student, she enrolled at Cornell University in August 1984, aiming for a possible career in psychology. In March 1985, however, she took an unexplained leave of absence.

Five days before Christmas 1985, at age 19, she was driving her boyfriend to his job at an Ithaca grocery store. At 2:20 a.m., her 1979 Dodge sedan hit a patch of ice on a rural road, skidded 35 feet and slammed into a tree.

The boyfriend broke bones in his arm and leg, banged his head and cannot remember the crash. His girlfriend was not so fortunate. Doctors hoped that she would come out of her coma within a week, but nothing happened.

She was transferred to hospitals in Syracuse, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; and Boston. Under the strain, her parents eventually broke up. Finally, the family moved her to the new Westfall Health Care Center in Brighton, a Rochester suburb.

At year's end, the nursing staff noticed that her belly was swelling. They ruled out a digestive blockage and other possible ailments before calling in her family, and the police, on New Year's Eve: Not only had she been raped, she was already 4 1/2 months pregnant.

Acting as guardians, her parents rejected an abortion on religious grounds and decided that their daughter, who turns 30 in April, would have kept the baby, law enforcement sources said.

"I believe that that is what she would want," said Vicky Hansen, one of the woman's closest friends when they attended a Roman Catholic high school for girls in a Rochester suburb. Her theology class discussed the ethics of abortion on several occasions.

"In the case of rape, if she went to a doctor the next day, I don't know what she would have thought about that," Hansen said. "But after finding out when the baby is four months, five months along, she would definitely be in favor of having it."

Although a few women have fallen into comas or suffered brain death while pregnant, doctors said this is the first documented case of someone becoming pregnant while already incapacitated. Medical ethicists are divided over whether the pregnancy should proceed.

"I don't think women should be used as vessels without their consent for the sake of other people," said George Annas, professor of health law at Boston University School of Medicine.

"Let's suppose the family had decided they wanted to have a grandchild and so they artificially inseminated her. Would you say it's the family's prerogative? I think most people would be horrified at that notion."

But Jane Greenlaw, a lawyer who teaches medical ethics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, believes that it is the family's private business. "I think it's wrong to assume that one of the choices has more moral implications than the other," she said.

Meanwhile, in September, a nurse's aide at the 145-bed Westfall center was charged with fondling a 49-year-old female patient. The same man was arrested the next month on charges of posing as a gynecologist and sex therapist and offering to conduct pelvic exams in the basement of a home.

Police said that between five and 10 employees, ex-employees and visitors are suspects in the rape, but would not say if the aide is among them.

Investigators know that they will not have the benefit of testimony from the victim. But using traditional detective work as well as DNA analysis, Brighton Police Chief Thomas Voelkl said he was confident that "a suspect will be, at some point, identified and brought to justice."

Neurologists think it unlikely that the woman, now under close watch at Strong Memorial Hospital, retains any conscious awareness of her surroundings. Her eyes open and close and she makes grunting sounds, but such reflex actions can remain in people who are severely brain-damaged.

The baby, if brought to full term, will be born in May. A family member is said to be considering rearing the child.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|