Tell Me a Story – In the Blink of an Eye

In a “precedent-setting case,” a California judge has ruled that a mother who suffered severe brain damage while giving birth to triplets must be granted visitation rights to see her children.

The Dorn couple before accident

The Dorn couple - before the accident.

The mother, Abbie Dorn, and her ex-husband, Daniel Dorn, wed in 2002 but had trouble conceiving a child. After an in-vitro fertilization process, the couple looked forward to having not one but three children together. Complications arose during the pregnancy, however, and Ms. Dorn underwent an emergency hysterectomy after being deprived of oxygen for nearly 20 minutes. Although she survived the ordeal, she is, according to her ex-husband, “neurologically incapacitated”—a claim that is disputed by Ms. Dorn’s parents and lawyer, who argue that Ms. Dorn is still able to communicate to the outside world by blinking: “One slow blink means ‘yes,’ and no response means ‘no.’”

One year after the birth of the triplets, Mr. Dorn filed for divorce.

Now Mr. Dorn claims that allowing his 4-year old children to see their mother in this condition could potentially traumatize them because she is physically unable to interact with them, and wants to wait until they are old enough to comprehend the situation better.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frederick C. Shaller disagreed.

In his temporary order, J. Shaller ordered Mr. Dorn to accompany the children to visit their mother at her home over 5 consecutive days each summer and to conduct at least one Skype conference every month. Additionally, Mr. Dorn must also place photographs of the children’s mother in his home so the children can see them. Although Ms. Dorn cannot communicate with the children (at least in the traditional sense of the word) the children can still see, touch, and bond with her, “and can carry these memories with them,” according to the Judge.

This is not just a battle over a parent’s visitation rights. Although the California Supreme Court has ruled before that it is improper for a judge to rely on a parent’s physical handicap as prima facie evidence of the parent’s unfitness (SeeIn the Marriage of Carney, 24 Cal. 3d 725 (Cal. 1979)), the ultimate ruling on this matter can carry profound implications about Ms. Dorn’s status as both a mother and a human being. The United States Supreme Court has already established that all mothers begin at least with some parental rights to their child solely by reason of the fact that they conceived the child, went through labor, and gave birth to the child (See, Lehr v. Robertson, 463 US 248 (US 1983)).  But the outcome of this trial could potentially shed light on whether a person in Ms. Dorn’s condition is in a persistent vegetative state and also the extent to which such persons are entitled to play a role in their children’s upbringing.

Although much of the debate has been about whether Ms. Dorn’s eye blinks are a meaningful means of communication with the rest of the world or just spontaneous muscular contractions, the case also provokes us to consider the children’s story: Do the children here have a right to know who their mother is, regardless of her medical condition and how it was caused? Dr. Sanjay Gupta, medical correspondent at CNN, explores this angle further in his special report.