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Abbie Dorn—Parent and Person? April 12, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
Tags: , , , ,

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…