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Abbie Dorn—Parent and Person? April 12, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Many of us have never forgotten the case of Terri Schiavo—the woman whose story engaged the entire nation, as well as Congress, in 2004-05 when the two versions of her situation—her parents’ and her husband’s—finally came to a showdown, and the courts sided with her husband: Terri, in a persistent vegetative state for  years, finally had her feeding tube removed, and died as her husband claimed she wanted. Her parents, on the other hand, insisted that she communicated with them, and they were willing to care for her for the rest of her life. Terri’s story is much longer and more complex, but I wanted to bring it up because a new “Terri” story is unfolding in South Carolina, revealing a moral problem going in a different direction: this time another young woman, Abbie Dorn, has been in what her husband claims is a persistent vegetative state for 2 ½ years after giving birth to triplets—an event that left her brain damaged and unable to communicate. Now divorced from her husband Dan, at his insistence, Abbie’s condition has—according to her parents—improved, and she is capable of communicating with her eyes; she ( again, according to her parents) now wants legal visitation rights to the three small children. Her ex-husband claims that (1) she cannot express such a wish because she is incompetent, and (2) even if she could, it would not be good for the small children to see her in her tormented, painful condition. According to the Los Angeles Times,

The California Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that disabled parents cannot be denied custody simply because of their handicaps. Parenting, the justices wrote, is as much about emotion as it is about physical ability.

“A handicapped parent is a whole person to the child who needs his affection, sympathy and wisdom to deal with the problems of growing up,” the justices wrote.

But that case was about custody, not visitation, and concerned a quadriplegic parent who had raised his children alone before his injury and who could talk and drive.

Lisa Helfend Meyer, Abbie’s attorney, said, “There is no case in point that addresses Abbie’s particular circumstance, whether someone in her condition has a constitutional right to parent or visit her children.”

                The moral problem here is not the right to die, but the right to live as a person, with rights, even if one suffers from a severe disability. Under other conditions Abbie would have had visitation rights (and apparently her husband thinks she should have duties—to pay child support), but that is assuming that she is a person. Is someone who is incapable of communicating still a person? Nobody disputes that Abbie is human—but personhood, with the rights of a person, requires rational thinking and capability to express one’s rational  thoughts, at least according to numerous philosophers from Kant to Mary Ann Warren. But the very postulate that Abbie is still a person rests with the evidence provided by her parents—who presumably have an interest in staying in touch with their grandchildren. This is where the parallels to the Schiavo case come in—because we are seeing two very different versions of Abbie’s reality presented in court, her ex-husband’s version (and it would be to his advantage to have Abbie declared incompetent), and her parents, with their personal preference and interpretation of the situation.

The question raised by the L.A. Times article (which clearly sides with Abbie and her parents) is, Is Abbie a parent, with rights? Does parenthood entail the mere fact of being a birth parent, or must there be evidence of closeness, caring, etc.? But philosophically, the deeper question is, Is Abbie still a person? Should we apply the concept of personhood as a matter of principle, in recognition of the discrimination some human individuals and groups have felt, in previous times, because of a lack of political power—- so that any human being is a person, period? Or should we decide that personhood is all about interactive relationships, and if there is no discernable hope of interaction, assessed by disinterested parties (such as a court-appointed neurologist being kept up-to-date with the latest therapeutic assessment), then there is no personhood, either?

My own take on this: it’s not such a hard question. Be Solomonic. Err on the side of inclusive personhood—as long as there is a chance that Abbie is having experiences and wishes, respect them, and her. She is on a long, dark journey, and adding insult to her terrible injury by disregarding her potential personhood is unworthy these days. On the other hand, there is no reason why visitation rights should be granted from one day to the next, with the risk of traumatizing her toddlers. After all, she’s not asking for custody. If Abbie’s parents, and Abbie, want the best for the children (who at this point don’t even know they have a mother), they should be left with their father, and slowly be introduced to the story, with pictures, video, etc. Writing letters and drawing pictures to their mother could be the start of a relationship, building up a unique situation over months. I would assume that having a mother without a voice, or without arms that can hold them, but with loving eyes speaking a language of their own (if indeed Abbie herself is still behind those eyes), is a whole lot better than having no birth mother at all in their lives, and being told the story later when it is too late to amend the situation …what “might have been” is going to be cold comfort…



1. Caroline - April 21, 2010

Hi – I really hope these triplets can now their mother soon. It bothers me a little when you say…

“slowly be introduced to the story, with pictures, video,………”

Um, I don’t agree with that.

They don’t need to know the details of the story, esp at this age!

They just need to know they have a mom who loves them very, very much and wanted them so badly she went through fertility treatments (ok, maybe they don’t need to know about the fertilit treatments) but just need to know they have a mom who loves them VERY MUCH and wants to see them. Somethinng like this:

They need to meet her NOW, actually yesterday. It could be a simple as the grandparents taking them and saying, “THis is your mommy, she loves you very, very much. She used to be able to talk and walk, just like daddy, but she can’t anymore. But she still loves you. Here, why don’t you hold her hand? She can “talk” to you by blinking. Why don’t you show her how well you can bounce a ball? I know she’d be very proud of you!”

Something as simple as that.

PLEASE read an OPEN LETTER to DON DORN, ex-husband of Abbie Dorn.

I hope these children can feel their mother’s love soon.

2. Caroline - April 21, 2010

OOOOOOOPS – I GAVE YOU THE WRONG LINK = Here is the OPEN LETTER to Don Dorn, ex-husband of Abbie Cohen Dorn:


3. Nina Rosenstand - April 22, 2010

Thanks for the link, Caroline. I didn’t mean that they were supposed to be told the entire story. That would be unnecessary and pointless at that age. But I think that some preparation, such as the grandparents telling them about their mother, perhaps in the way you suggest, a few days before meeting her, would be wise. An out-of-the-blue controntation would not. But I’m not a child psychologist.

4. Asur - April 27, 2010

If Abbie is indeed responsive, then she clearly has means to be a parent to her children.

On the other hand, if she is indeed vegetative, then their mother is dead in every personally meaningful sense and should be treated as such relative those children who have no existing relationship with her.

If she is vegetative and her condition later improves–fantastic. But the mere hope that it might improve is not grounds for acting as if it has.

5. chantel - May 5, 2010

This article is very upsetting to know that the husband thinks this person, who is a friend, daughter and mother should not be able to see her own children. Anyone deserves to have rights, whether it is an animal or someone who is disabled. I agree with Abbie’s parents, that they know she is still in there and her sole is still living. I find it very wrong that the husband is willing to take away their children’s mother just because she is disabled. She is still their mother in every way, and the kids can still show her love and give her hugs. I disagree with Immanuel Kant how he thinks one who does not have rights because he or she doesn’t have responsibilities or thoughts. No one knows if Abbie is still thinking or not. It is also very disgusting that Abbie is disabled because of giving birth, and now the husband wants to reject her from seeing the children Abbie gave her own life up for. I would agree with you by saying the children should be left with their father, but after reading that he does not want them to see their mother, I believe the grandmother should have custody of them. I also would agree with you that if the children do not get the chance to meet their mother, then showing videos and pictures would be a great idea. As the same token, what if this happened to Abbie later on in the children’s life. What if the children have known their mother all along and are now old enough to understand and Abbie suddenly became disabled. Would the children suddenly not be able to show her love and treat her as their mother anymore? Overall, I definitely think the children deserve the right to see their mother, because Abbie deserves her rights.

Asur - May 6, 2010

Assuming she no longer has the capacity for thought, by what criterion is Abbie still a person? How can she benefit from the presence of things that require cognitive capacity to appreciate? Likewise, how can she be harmed by their absence?

If there is no benefit to be gained or harm to be avoided, Abbie’s rights — assuming she had any — wouldn’t come into play, since a right is necessarily a right to gain or avoid something meaningful, whether objectively or subjectively.

6. Albin Gashi PHIL102B Thursday - May 6, 2010

It depends the way you look at this story. If you are trying to argue that is morally incorrect, one can have good arguments. If you try to prove the point of the negative effects that Abbie might have on children’s upbringing, arguments will support the stance as well.

I think that is upsetting that the husband is not letting Abbie see the children. However, if she is incapable of thinking and acting normally she should be prevented from seeing the children because it is on the children’s psychological benefit to not see their mother on that situation.

Since parents of Abbie are saying that she improved then a visit under supervision could be done.


7. michael j. berry - May 11, 2010

The fact that this woman’s ex-husband will not allow visitation is deeply disturbing to the point of me having a literal visceral reaction upon reading this story. How can one individual be so cold and callous as to not allow the woman he supposedly loved and pledged his life to the ability to see their own three children. With her being in the state that she is in, and assumingly soon to be shuffling loose this mortal coil, to deny her the right to see her children before she is to pass on is a crime against man and nature. There is no stronger bond than that betwixt mother and child. She has obviously expressed her wishes to spend time with her three children and that alone shows that she still posseses some of her faculties, even if she is only able to communicate with her eyes. She is not in a persistant vegitative state, and even if she was for that matter, i still would consider her a person because she belongs to a species that is considered to be people with certain inalienable rights. I am also certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that when her children get older that they would much rather have had some time with their birth mother than no time at all, regardless of her physical or mental state. What this man is doing to his family is beyond immoral and downright reprehensible.

Yvonne - March 25, 2011

I am just reading this story for the first time today, it really hasn’t made the news much here in Canada. What I will say is reading this has made me sick to my stomach. As a mother of 4 I can’t imagine what it would be like to have someone, especially someone I was married to, take away my children, no matter what condition I was in. The only reason to do that would be if I was endangering their lives. What kind of man does this ? What kind of animal does this ? What kind of man divorces his wife because of this ? Dan Dorn you are a disgrace to all humanity.

Nina Rosenstand - March 26, 2011

Yvonne, Abbie is in the news today. I have posted an update.

8. Kara McNair - May 11, 2010

This story is sad. Abbie is a person and if all is true about her being responsive and such, then she definitely deserves to be able to see her children and be a parent to them. As I said in my first essay paper, a person to me, I simply a human being. And seeing as she is one, then she certainly has personhood, especially if she is responsive. I think that her children should at least be told that her mother is unable to talk or move but that she does indeed love and care about them and she does want to be there for them. She is their mother and I think she has the right to see them, vegetative state or not. I wish times weren’t like this where people weren’t like this( I’m not referring to the vegetative state, but to the debate about whether she is a person). It’s just sad that it’s come to this. I feel for Abbie and to me, this is a “put yourself in their shoes” situation. If I were in a vegetative state, but was responsive, I’d think I’d like to at least see my children, and I think Abbie deserves at least that.

9. Asur - May 12, 2010

Empathy is a poor foundation for ethics.

10. Citrus - July 20, 2010

Abbie, Dan and their children will never experience life as a family.
Abbie’s “life” will never return. I believe Dan has acted in good faith and I do not fault him for recognizing the reality of his loss.
My suggestion: Stop the legal circus. Everyone has already lost. The only winners are the attorneys and those who are generating generous compensation from this circus. If Dan could be bold enough to step back and let go and allow the children unlimited skyping with their mother I think it would become abundently clear through normal observation the children would soon find the exercise to be less than interesting or engaging. If my prediction is correct, then I suggest Dan take another bold step. Allow the children to travel to South Carolina, live with their mother, even be home schooled in her bedroom. I believe the children may realize, without too much trauma, that their mother is not really available to do the fun things they would like to do. The grandparents will be delighted with their presence and the news services will have a heyday filming the kids “playing” with mom. It could be the new reality TV show. America will become informed as to how a severly brain damaged mother parents three active children in an affluent environment. After the press has had enough, then the children could then have that quiet and normal parental attention Abbie is eager to afford them. Dan should strike a deal-equal custody-let go and allow it to happen. However, Dan should retain sole legal custody. Soon the kids will be able to tell the court what they want. If the grandparents take them to Disney World every other week, they will probably want to stay w/Abbie until they get bored with Disney World. No one wins. Children are resilient. If being parented by a severly brain damaged motther is traumatic, they will recover. Skyping with Abbie would be like watching Tellitubies–just let it happen. Save the legal fees for fun vacations with dad, therapy and their college education.

11. Update on Abbie Dorn « Philosophy On The Mesa - March 26, 2011

[…] my previous post about Abbie’s situation I concluded (and pardon me for quoting myself! It’s easier to paste it in, here on a Saturday […]

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