explainer

The questions people are asking about the woman who gave birth in a vegetative state.

News that a US woman in a vegetative state had given birth baffled the world when it broke this month.

The 29-year-old woman, whose name has not been reported, gave birth on 29 December at the Arizona healthcare facility where she lived, Hacienda HealthCare.

Immediately the implications of this became clear: she had been a victim of sexual assault – and a police investigation was launched into who committed this heinous crime.

Yet, we still have so many questions about this woman, how she gave birth and the baby at the centre of this all.

1. How long had she been in that state?

The 29-year-old woman has been in a vegetative state for at least 14 years, but new reports suggest she may have been living this way since she was just three years old.

CBS5 and CNN have reported that court documents show she was diagnosed with a brain injury and had been living in a vegetative state at the facility since 1992, so 26 years ago.

Her state means that while she is not unconscious, she has no awareness.

According to the Brain Foundation Australia, someone in a vegetative state “doesn’t show any meaningful responses, such as following an object with their eyes or responding to voices. They also show no signs of experiencing emotions nor of cognitive function”.

While the records do not say what caused her brain damage, they do say her condition has declined over the years.

2. Did anyone know she was pregnant?

It’s clear from reports coming out that the staff at Hacienda HealthCare did not know the woman was pregnant.

Phoenix police released the audio from a 911 call to police from staff at the facility shortly after the babies birth in which nurses sound panicked.

“We had no idea this person was pregnant. We had no idea this patient was pregnant,” one woman can be heard saying.

If anyone did know she was pregnant, it would seem they chose not to alert anyone at the facility.

3. Was/is the baby healthy?

A woman who used to work at the facility told CNN that the woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy, who is doing well.

The news source also reports the baby was in distress after he was born. If there were long-term health implications from this period of distress, they haven’t been reported.

4. Would she have felt pain while delivering?

Anyone who’s gone through vaginal childbirth without pain relievers, as this woman did, knows how incredibly painful it is. But in her state, can she feel pain?

According to the Brain Foundation, people in vegetative states “do not respond to sound, hunger, or pain”.

However more research is still being done on the condition, and how exactly the brains of patients respond to different things. Essentially, with the limited knowledge we have of her condition, we don’t know whether she experienced the pain of giving birth or not.

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5. How did the staff not know she was pregnant?

Well, that’s the question on most people’s minds. It’s hard to miss a big growing belly, especially in a woman who reportedly weighed just 52kg last March.

But then again, some women who have been awake and alert their entire pregnancy manage to not realise they are pregnant until they give birth. Not everyone presents in the same, typical, melon-under-the shirt way.

Medical records seen by CBS5 show she received treatment related to bowel, which they report was due to previous bowel obstruction surgery. A doctor the news station spoke to suggested that scarring from this surgery may have changed the way her uterus was positioned, leading it not to look like a traditional pregnancy.

As the woman has possibly been in a vegetative state since she was a child, it’s not hard to understand why staff wouldn’t automatically suspect the woman was pregnant, as they might for say a woman who had only been in the state for a few months.

It’s also been reported that the woman’s state has been stable for some time, though she is vulnerable to illnesses.

Medical records seen by CNN refer to a doctor noting she had a “firm belly” during an appointment 37 weeks before she gave birth. It’s unclear if they took a blood test at this time. It’s also unclear whether she had any of physical examinations between April and December.

6. Who is the baby’s father?

That is the horrifying question we all want to know the answer to. Because it’s clear, whoever he is, he has committed a grievous crime. Documents show the woman was “unable to consent”, and therefore any sexual activity would have been an assault.

The crime could have been committed by a visitor or staff in the building. Police have requested male staff members to provide their DNA.

If one of these staff members is a match, we may know the father’s identity within weeks. However, if the courts decide to suppress his name, we may not find out until his trial is completed, and perhaps not even then.

7. Who will take care of the baby?

Obviously, his mother is unable to care for and raise her baby, given she is unable to take care of herself. With the father an unknown at this stage, he’s not caring for the baby boy. And even when his identity is discovered by police, it’s very likely he’ll be charged with committing sexual assault. So who’s taking care of the baby boy?

According to an attorney who is representing the family in the sexual assault case that will likely soon follow, the baby is with them, CNN reports.

“The family would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for,” John Michaels said.

It is not known who this family is made up of, but court documents show the woman’s mother is her legal guardian.

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