Catholic Health Group Says Unborn Babies Aren’t People


Ultrasound image of a fetus

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Attorneys for a Catholic health care organization are defending against a wrongful death lawsuit by making an unexpected argument: A fetus is not a person.

Jeremy Stodghill brought the suit two years after his wife, Lori, died in St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City, Col. Lori was seven months pregnant with twin boys when she began vomiting and struggling to breathe on New Years Day in 2006. Jeremy drove her to the hospital emergency room, where she suffered a severe heart attack. A blot clot had formed in Lori’s leg and traveled to her lungs, where it caused a pulmonary embolism and stopped her from breathing.

When doctors were unable to resuscitate Lori or detect a fetal heartbeat, they decided against performing an emergency C-section. Stodghill says in his suit that the C-section could have saved all three of their lives.

But a judge disagreed, writing that “given the emotional and economic costs involved in trying the plaintiffs’ wrongful death claims, it would be a disservice to the parties to go to trial on these claims in face of the uncontroverted facts presented and the law as it stands at this time.”

Those “uncontroverted facts” include unanimous medical expert opinion that Lori’s odds of survival were less than 50% even if a C-section was performed. And the “law as it stands at this time” refers to the Colorado Wrongful Death Act, which says that injured parties are entitled to damages “when the death of a person is caused by a wrongful act.”

Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), the faith-based group that owns St. Thomas More Hospital, successfully argued that to be considered a person, one must first have been born alive. The judge dismissed the suit, and when Stodghill appealed, an appeals court judge upheld the dismissal. The suit is now up for consideration by the Colorado Supreme Court.

 

Hypocrisy Not a Legal Problem

CHI’s legal strategy is squarely at odds with the church teachings it promises to uphold in its mission statement. Those teachings are clearly stated in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guide, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

“Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death,’” according to the guide. “The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn and the care of women and their children during and after pregnancy.”

But the church’s position isn’t a factor in civil proceedings, allowing CHI to benefit from a law with which it philosophically disagrees.

Tom Simeone

“It is irrelevant what any party believes the law should be or what standard they hold themselves to, for religious or any other purpose,” said attorney Tom Simeone. “The law of Colorado is what will be applied.”

Even though two judges have already maintained this position, Simeone says there is still another line of argument available to Stodghill.

“They could argue that they relied on the church’s position when deciding to seek medical care from the church’s facilities,” Simeone said. “Thus, they could argue that even though the church is not responsible for a tort under the law of Colorado, they are responsible under a breach of contract theory.”

“Overall, this line of an argument is difficult and I do not know if the plaintiff will make it on appeal, but it is probably the best argument to make.”

 

Wrongful Death Loophole

Though unborn babies aren’t covered under Colorado’s wrongful death law, Stodghill’s attorneys told Westword that courts in more than 30 other states have found that their wrongful death statutes do apply to viable fetuses. Beth Krulewitch, one of Stodghill’s lawyers, worries that the lower courts’ interpretation of the wrongful death law opens up a dangerous loophole that would allow doctors to escape consequences for negligence that results in fetal death.

“What we’re saying is if you have a viable fetus — and there’s no question in this case that these babies were viable — and a doctor negligently causes their death, that the surviving parents ought to be able to bring a lawsuit,” Krulewitch told Westword. “The person who was negligent would basically get away with it.”

What do you think of CHI’s legal strategy? What about the Colorado wrongful death statute that only applies to people born alive? Let us know in the comments section below.

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