A horrifying story has been in headlines this week: A 29-year-old woman in a vegetative state at the Hacienda HealthCare facility in Phoenix gave birth to a baby boy on December 29. The woman had been in this state for 14 years after nearly drowning. She is considered a sexual assault victim, and police are collecting DNA samples from male workers at the facility in an attempt to identify who assaulted her.
"The family obviously is outraged, traumatized, and in shock by the abuse and neglect of their daughter at Hacienda HealthCare," said John Michaels, who is her family's attorney, reported CNN. "The family would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for."
While the hunt for her assailant is in progress, the case has raised the question: How could a woman who for 14 years has presumably displayed no awareness and little brain functioning conceive a child and give birth?
First, it helps to know what a vegetative state is. It’s a “profound or deep state of unconsciousness” where the person doesn’t have thinking abilities but has other bodily functions like breathing and circulation, and they may also open their eyes or make sounds like crying or laughing, states the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The terms “coma” and “persistent vegetative state” are often used interchangeably, the NIH says. However, the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center, a division of the American Institutes for Research, explains a key difference: People in a coma don’t open their eyes at all, while those in a vegetative state might.
As for the potential of pregnancy: Even in a vegetative state, a woman's ovaries "can still respond to the fluctuations in hormones that trigger ovulation,” Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at Winnie Palmer Hospital For Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida, tells Health. And if a woman can ovulate, she can also menstruate…and get pregnant.
If conception does happen, as long as the woman is getting the nutrients she needs, "then the uterus will do the job of making the fetus grow,” explains Dr. Greves. However, according to reports, workers at the care facility where she lives didn't notice the developing pregnancy.
When it was time for the baby to be born and labor began, her body did what it's designed to do. The onset of labor doesn’t require a mom knowing she’s going through it, says Dr. Greves. Though the exact trigger for labor isn’t understood, it’s safe to say that the body doesn’t need the brain to agree it’s ready to have the baby.
As for pushing, it’s actually not a requirement for delivering a baby. “We can deliver babies without needing to push,” says Dr. Greves. In fact, in certain medical situations, it’s best not to push and instead let the uterus do all the work.
The circumstances surrounding the woman’s pregnancy aren’t known, and it's unclear if the woman gave birth full-term; police simply described her as being “very far along,” according to People, and that they responded to a call at the facility because a baby was in distress and having trouble breathing.
This isn’t the first time a woman in a coma has been raped and later given birth. The New York Times reported two additional cases in the 1990s. In 1996, a woman in a 10-year coma after a car crash gave birth to a boy. A 24-year-old woman in a coma following a drug overdose five years earlier delivery a baby girl in 1998.
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