Do the Catholic parents of a woman raped while in a coma have the right to insist that the baby lives? Pat Walsh on religion and the
A 29-year-old woman in New York, who has been in a coma for 10 years, has been found to be pregnant by an as yet unidentified rapist. If no one intervenes, she will give birth in May. The horrifying fact of the rape of an utterly defenceless and vulnerable woman is currently sending shockwaves through the United States.

A potentially greater source of consternation, though, is the ethical conundrum: is it morally acceptable to allow a child conceived and brought to term in such circumstances to be born?

In the United States, some doctors and ethicists are arguing that to use a woman's body to produce a child, when she has clearly not consented to the pregnancy in the first place, is an affront to her humanity. Such a course of action is said to reduce her to the state of a "vessel" or object, used for someone else's purposes. However, the parents of the raped woman are refusing to contemplate an abortion because they are strongly Catholic, as their daughter was, and because, understandably enough, they now see an opportunity of continuing the link with their child through the birth of her child. The fact that the child would grow up unable to communicate with her mother and without the comfort of a loving father, but merely the highly distressing knowledge that her unknown father was a creature of obscene violence, is not something that the prospective grandparents appear to have taken into account.

The moral difficulties presented by this grotesque and tragic case are as disturbing and problematic as the emotional implications, but they are not new. In April last year the case of Karen Battenbough, who was pregnant and in a persistent vegetative state, brought very similar issues to public attention. In that case doctors had decided, at the express wish of the father, to try to keep her baby alive until it was capable of independent survival. Their decision was also characterised as a violation of a woman's right not to have her body used for another's benefit. Indeed it was described by some as a case of a baby "growing in the grave".

Whether allowing a child to develop inside the womb of a permanently unconscious woman is somehow a violation of her dignity as a person is something we have to decide rather than find out. If we should come to regard such cases in that light then that judgement about pregnant comatose women will apply whether they are victims of rape or not. What is unusual about the current American case is that it is the parents who are insisting that no abortion should take place, in circumstances where perhaps most of us would expect them to be revolted by the extra wrong done to their already irreparably damaged daughter.

However, in cases where the consent of a patient to a proposed course of action cannot be obtained it is established practice to consult the views of those closest to him or her as to what the patient would have wanted. In the case of Tony Bland, for instance, where the courts were trying to decide whether it was permissible to withdraw artificial feeding and hydration from an irretrievably unconscious patient, the view of his parents that he would not have wanted to be kept alive in the circumstances was crucial. There seems no reason to think that the comatose victim of rape would disagree with what her parents say she would want. Emotional, gut reactions aside, it is therefore unclear why we should dispense with established practice - even though we find it extremely hard to stomach.

The writer is a lecturer in medical ethics at King's College, London.