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Think. Discuss. Act. Ethics

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Review: A Very Difficult Pregnancy

(1996, February 5). A very difficult pregnancy: Should a woman in a coma, impregnated by a rapist, bear a child? Time, p. 33.


In 1985, a 19-year-old Cornell University freshman suffered a serious automobile accident that left her in a coma. Her eyes open, she can follow movement in the room, but the only apparent sign of comprehension or response is to pain. In August, 1995 she was found to be five months pregnant, apparently raped by a health aide of the Westfall Health Care Center in Brighton, N.Y.

Opinions as to what should be done and who should have the final say differ. Women in comas have given birth before-in most cases pregnant before becoming comatose. There are obvious medical risks to a woman giving birth while in a coma. The child will one day have to deal with its bizarre origins.

In this case, as is the prevailing practice, the family has made its decision. The woman and her family being devout Roman Catholics, it has been decided that she will have the baby. Lawyer and ethicist at the Hastings Center, Ellen Moskowitz, says, “It seems reasonable to conclude this is the kind of decision she would have wanted.”

George Annas of the Boston University School of Public Health disagrees. He cites the governments ruling in the case of comatose Nancy Cruzan in 1990 to maintain her on life supports even against the strong wishes of her family. Furthermore, “Even people who are fervently pro-life (sometimes) make exceptions for rape and incest. Since the pregnancy was not her project, making her give birth, which carries medical risks, constitutes abuse.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Who do you think should decide such cases? Should it always be so, and should there ever be exceptions to this answer?
  2. Do you think this fetus should be aborted?
  3. If there is no abortion and there is a healthy birth, what do you think should be done with the child? When and how should it be told about its conception and birth? Would you allow the child to eventually see his or her mother if she is still alive? At what age would this be appropriate?
  4. If the rapist is charged and proven guilty, what sentence would you recommend?


  1. Our society needs some solid ground on which to train its young (potential rapists and mothers), make difficult ethical decisions, and render criminal justice verdicts. Relativists and absolutists must be heard and taken seriously in our public debate over controversial issues. We must find new ways of reaching common ground.
  2. The discussion of ethical dilemmas is a part of moral education in the home, school, and church. It must be admitted that there are difficult, gray areas in the field of ethics and law. Neither cynicism nor dogmatism serves those in such positions well.
  3. There will be issues on which there will be strong disagreement in our society. It is necessary to learn how to live, listen, and debate amid strong diversity. Discussion of such issues should take place among young people in schools and youth groups. These should not be discussions for discussion’s sake, but part of an overall plan to contribute to the moral grounding of young people and their ability to function out of an integrated sense of self in a complex world.

Dean Borgman cCYS
© 2018 CYS

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