A Catholic hospital embroiled in a lawsuit involving the death of twin fetuses is arguing that they should not be held responsible for the death of the unborn children because "a fetus is not a person".
The defense stems from a wrongful death lawsuit brought against Catholic Health Initiatives.
On January 1, 2006, thirty-one-year-old Lori Stodghill began experiencing shortness of breath and vomiting. Being 7-months pregnant with twins, she contacted her obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, who told her to go to the emergency room (ER) at St. Thomas More hospital in Cañon City, CO. Her husband, Jeremy, took her to the emergency room and left her with the admitting staff while he parked the car. When he arrived back in the ER, he found Stodghill unconscious with a nurse rubbing her chest and telling her to "wake up".
The emergency room staff frantically tried to revive Stodghill while also paging Staples, who was the on call obstetrician for the evening, as well as Stodghill's doctor. Staples never came to the hospital, but he did speak to Jeremy on the phone. Jeremy told Westword:
"He said, 'Well, what do you want to do? Take the babies? Take the babies? "I kept responding, 'I'm not a doctor!'"
An ER nurse checked for fetal heartbeats, but could not find any. ER doctors assumed the twins were dead and decided against doing a perimortem Cesarean section, an emergency procedure that can save both the lives of mothers and babies in some instances. Stodghill eventually died of a massive heart attack after the main artery leading to her lungs clogged. Her two unborn sons also died.
Following the death of his wife and two unborn children, Jeremy filed a wrongful-death lawsuit. The lawsuit argued that if Staples had responded to the hospital or instructed the ER staff to perform a caesarian-section, Stodghill may have still died, but the twin may have been saved. The lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), operator of St. Thomas More hospital and approximately 170 other medical centers in 17 states around the U.S.
According to their website, the mission of CHI is to: "nurture the healing ministry of the Church by bringing it new life, energy and viability in the 21st century. Fidelity to the Gospel urges us to emphasize human dignity and social justice as we move toward the creation of healthier communities."
Adhering to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, CHI believes they should: “witness to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death. The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn.”
In 2010, Catholic bishops with the Colorado Catholic Conference issued a letter regarding a petition aimed at collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment designed to define "personhood". In the letter, the bishops say:
"We affirm the principle that life begins at conception and therefore we affirm the personhood of the unborn."
However Jason Langley, attorney for CHI, has argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed, saying:
"[The court] should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term ‘person,’ as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive. Colorado state courts define ‘person’ under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses."
During the initial trail, held in the Fremont County District Court, Judge David M. Thorson ruled in favor of CHI. When the case went to the Colorado Court of Appeals, Judge Arthur Roy also sided with the defense.
In September, Beth Krulewitch and Dan Gerash, attorneys for Stodghill, appealed the case to the Colorado Supreme Court. In their petition, both argue that Judges Thorson and Roy overlooked key facts in the case and that their rulings will open up new loopholes in malpractice laws, essentially relieving doctors of responsibility to patients whose viable fetuses are at risk.
The court will decide within the next couple of weeks whether or not to hear the case. Whatever the eventual verdict, the case has sparked sharp reactions by those on both the pro-choice and pro-life argument. Many on the pro-choice side feel the argument is hypocritical, saying the church has no problem abandoning it's principles when money is involved. Some on the pro-life side are equally critical, with several on the Catholic.com forums calling the church a "sell out" and hypocrites. One person states:
Last time I checked, the Church declares basic truths. These truths (and Truth) are not separate from the law. Indeed the (secular) law should conform to them, not be subordinated or even ignored.
Also, I'm fairly certain the Church makes no distinction between human being and human person. Indeed, human beings are a subset of personhood. There are more persons than there are human persons.
Another points out that by using this argument, the church is missing an opportunity to potentially change the law, saying:
"This is really bad. If the defendants win and the court cites the argument that they cannot overturn the law, this means the court could have overturned the law, which would have been HUGE for pro-life. It would have certainly gone to the Supreme Court in a very good case for making new law about the status of the unborn, especially in this late-term situation.
They could have settled. It isn't just that they passed on the opportunity to affect the laws across the country, but they are solidifying the position of "a fetus is not a person." In future, when pro-life lawyers try and get the fetus recognized, the opposition will cite this case against them."