No matter on which side of the personhood issue you fall, Catholic Health Initiatives — the nonprofit behind Colorado’s St. Thomas More Hospital along with about 170 other facilities across the country — does not come across well in this situation.
The Catholic hospital chain claims to “nurture the healing ministry of the Church,” guided by “fidelity to the Gospel” and adherence to the ethical and religious directives of the Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But in a malpractice lawsuit involving the death of a pregnant woman carrying twins, CHI’s defense team argues against considering the fetuses as a legal people.
The case was brought by Jeremy Stodghill, whose wife Lori had been seven-months pregnant with twin boys when she arrived at St. Thomas More hospital in 2006. According to the Colorado Independent:
She was vomiting and short of breath and she passed out as she was being wheeled into an examination room. Medical staff tried to resuscitate her but, as became clear only later, a main artery feeding her lungs was clogged and the clog led to a massive heart attack. Stodghill’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, who also happened to be the obstetrician on call for emergencies that night, never answered a page. His patient died at the hospital less than an hour after she arrived and her twins died in her womb.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Stodghill’s husband Jeremy, a prison guard, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of himself and the couple’s then-two-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Staples should have made it to the hospital, his lawyers argued, or at least instructed the frantic emergency room staff to perform a caesarian-section. The procedure likely would not have saved the mother, a testifying expert said, but it may have saved the twins.
The Catholic Church has long been known for it’s opposition to not just abortion but also birth control. Catholic canon says life begins at conception, and Catholic organizations have fought for decades for laws to protect “unborn persons.” Recently, Catholic hospitals and medical facilities in particular have come into the spotlight for opposing healthcare law requirements to cover birth control in employee health plans, which they say violates religious freedom.
But when it came to mounting a defense in the Stodghill case, Catholic Health’s lawyers effectively turned the Church directives on their head … arguing state law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds that those fetuses are not persons with legal rights.
As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, 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.”
If you believe that the legal term person only describes those ‘born alive,’ Langley’s argument likely makes sense — but it still makes Catholic Health Services big (literally: the organization has net assets in the billions) old hypocrites. For those who do believe the unborn should be considered people, then this defense argument seems to move beyond just hypocritical into morally reprehensible territory.
So far, the Catholic Health attorneys won decisions from a district court and an appellate court in Colorado. The Stodgehills’ attorneys appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, arguing the earlier rulings would set bad legal precedent that could relieve Colorado physicians of responsibility to patients whose viable fetuses are at risk; the court hasn’t decided yet whether to take the case.