Update: Nathan Sutherland, a 36-year-old nurse at the Hacienda HealthCare facility has been arrested and charged with one count of sexual assault and one count of vulnerable adult abuse, according to the Associated Press.
The CEO of a Phoenix, Arizona, health facility has resigned amid a police investigation into the rape and subsequent pregnancy of a female patient who has been a vegetative state for more than a decade. Bill Timmons “terminated his employment” with the Hacienda HealthCare center earlier this week, the facility said in a statement to Huffington Post. According to KPHO-TV, which broke the story, the unidentified 29-year-old patient had been raped several times, and the staff had no idea she was pregnant until she went into labor and gave birth to a healthy baby boy on December 29th.
On Tuesday, January 8th, investigators served Hacienda HealthCare with a search warrant for DNA samples from all of its male employees in hopes of finding out who is responsible for the woman’s rape and pregnancy. In a statement, the facility said this latest step by law enforcement is a “welcome development” in the investigation.
“We had consulted attorneys to determine whether it would be legal for our company to compel our employees to undergo DNA testing conducted through Hacienda or for Hacienda to conduct voluntary genetic testing of staffers,” the facility said. “We were told it would be a violation of federal law in either instance. … We will continue to cooperate with Phoenix Police and all other investigative agencies to uncover the facts in this deeply disturbing, but unprecedented situation.”
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The victim has been in a vegetative state for 14 years following a near drowning incident, and is an enrolled member of the local San Carlos Apache Tribe, the tribe’s spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday.
“On behalf of the Tribe, I am deeply shocked and horrified at the treatment of one of our members,” Terry Rambler said. “When you have a loved one committed to palliative care, when they are most vulnerable and dependent upon others, you trust their caretakers. Sadly, one of her caretakers was not to be trusted and took advantage of her.”
In an anonymous interview with ABC-15, a former caregiver for the woman expressed disbelief that her pregnancy went unnoticed.
“I can’t believe that somebody would bathe her daily for nine months and never know that she wasn’t having a period, that she [was] growing in her midsection, that nurses weren’t keeping track [of her weight],” the former caregiver said. “Those things are shocking to me.”
Comatose pregnancies — including those resulting from sexual assault while the person is temporarily or permanently unconscious, or braindead — are extremely rare but not without precedent. In 2015, a Spanish-language publication in Argentina reported on a similar case in which a woman in a coma had been sexually assaulted and impregnated, but the family didn’t press charges and the case was never investigated by police.
Regardless of the legality of the precipitating sex act, comatose pregnancies come with both medical risks and complex ethical issues for the victim’s family to navigate.
“It’s possible to bring a fetus to term, but it depends on how far you are in the pregnancy,” bioethicist Arthur Caplan said in an interview with Vice in 2015. “If you’re at 28 weeks, you could probably have a C-section. But if you were only two weeks pregnant, I don’t think many hospitals would try that, because it could harm the fetus.”
However, that’s exactly what happened in 2001, when doctors in Cincinnati learned a patient named Chastity Cooper was two weeks pregnant when she suffered serious head injuries in a car accident and lapsed into a coma. The pregnancy was carried to term and delivered vaginally, as doctors ruled out a C-section because of the risks of giving anesthesia to comatose patients.
In 1995, a woman identified only as “Kathy,” who had been in a coma for a decade, was raped and impregnated by an aide at a New York nursing home. Kathy’s pregnancy was discovered when she was four months along, but her Roman Catholic family was against abortion and chose to have her carry the fetus to term. Kathy died shortly before her son’s first birthday, and the case resulted in the passing of “Kathy’s Law” in 1998, which requires background checks for nursing aides.
Family members for the woman in Phoenix have declined to give a public statement for the time being, but their attorney told Huffington Post,”The family obviously is outraged, traumatized and in shock by the abuse and neglect of their daughter at Hacienda Healthcare. … [They] would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for.”