21 Jan 2019

Polish media questions rape claims when woman in vegetative state gives birth

A woman in a vegetative state is raped and becomes pregnant. However, some Polish media sites have questions about that.

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P. Sterczewski NewsMavens, Europe
Polish media questions rape claims when woman in vegetative state gives birth - NewsMavens
Hospital room, PixaBay

Global media was quick to spread the story that a 29-year-old woman in a vegetative state had given birth in the Hacienda HealthCare nursing home in Phoenix, Arizona  (USA). Most Polish news sites, based on stories from The New York Times, Fox News and the Polish Press Agency, reported on various aspects of the case: the circumstances of the birth,  the health of the baby, the investigation, earlier sexual misconduct incidents in the nursing home and the new protective measures undertaken by the facility. Some reports, however, were strangely cautious in their descriptions of the crime.


The report about the case on the Polsat News website opens with this lead:

A woman in a state of coma for many years got pregnant in one of the care centers in Arizona and gave birth to a healthy boy at the end of December, as media in the USA have informed on Saturday. The patient might have been raped. The police are investigating the case.

The headline is clear that the woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy and the article is illustrated with a photo of baby toes.


There is no reason to dispute that the violation experienced by the woman was rape. According to original reports, the patient has been in a vegetative state for a decade (a newer article clarifies that it began in 1992). In such a state, there are no cognitive functions and only limited bodily reflexes, so giving consent to any sexual activity is impossible.  

The sentence used in the Polsat News report wrongly suggests there could have been another plausible explanation for the woman’s pregnancy, downplaying the sexual violence involved.

A similar issue occurs in the news pieces on the dziennik.pl and Fakt24 websites: their headlines end with the question “Was she raped?”.

The headlines of other reports in Polish media also seemed to focus primarily on the child’s well being (“...gives birth to a healthy boy”), and only mention the violation of the victim later in the article. This approach insinuates that the medical fact of giving birth while in a vegetative state is more crucial to the story, than the fact that a rape was committed. The use of stock photography depicting newborn babies in both dziennik.pl and Polsat News, as well as other articles, further contributes to this impression.

Additionally, most of the Polish reports on the case use an inaccurate medical term when describing the patient’s condition, referring to her as being in a “coma”. A patient in a coma lacks both wakefulness and consciousness, so their condition is actually “deeper” than in a vegetative state (which is often also called “unresponsive wakefulness syndrome” in medical literature).


The vagueness of statements with regard to sexual consent in the case of the rape of a woman in a vegetative state is an example of manipulation of facts and trivialization of violence against women.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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