Catholic Hospital Argues in Malpractice Case That a Fetus is not a Person

January 25, 2013 — A Catholic hospital in Colorado is arguing in court documents that it is not liable for the deaths of two seven-month-old fetuses because fetuses are not people, USA Today reports. The argument contradicts church teaching that human life begins at conception (Smietana, USA Today, 1/24).

Jeremy Stodghill filed a wrongful death lawsuit after his wife died in 2006 at St. Thomas More Hospital. Lori Stodghill was seven months pregnant with twins and had arrived at the hospital vomiting and short of breath. Medical personnel were unable to rescucitate her, and Lori Stodghill died from a massive heart attack caused by a clogged artery. Lori Stodghill's obstetrician, Pelham Staples, was on call for emergencies that night but did not answer a page. The lawsuit argues that had Staples been present, he could have instructed staff to perform an emergency caesarian section, which would have saved the lives of the fetuses, but not likely the life of Lori Stodghill.

Lawyers for Catholic Health Initiatives -- which operates St. Thomas More Hospital and about 170 other health facilities in 17 states -- have argued that Colorado's Wrongful Death Act, has been interpreted to apply only to persons born alive and, therefore, protects doctors from liability in cases concerning viable fetuses (Tomasic, Colorado Independent, 1/23).

A brief filed by the hospital said, "Under Colorado law, a fetus is not a 'person' and plaintiff's claims for wrongful death must therefore be dismissed" (USA Today, 1/24).

So far, a state district court and the Colorado Court of Appeals have both sided with CHI. Jeremy Stodghill's lawyers have appealed the case to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that the lower court judges overlooked key facts and set a bad legal precedent that would create a loophole in the state's malpractice law. The state Supreme Court is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether it will hear the case (Colorado Independent, 1/23).

U.S. Catholic Bishops To Review Lawsuit

Three Colorado Catholic bishops on Thursday announced that they will conduct a "full review" of the hospital's defense, policies and practices "to ensure fidelity and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church," Reuters reports (Coffman, Reuters, 1/25).

The hospital's mission statement says that the hospital is guided by "fidelity to the Gospel," which includes following the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church, according to the Colorado Independent. Those directives state that "Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life 'from the moment of conception until death'" (Colorado Independent, 1/23).

In a statement, Catholic Health Initiatives said the hospital's defense in the case is "in union with the moral teachings of the Church" (USA Today, 1/24).

However, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan and Pueblo Bishop Fernando Isern in a letter said that Catholic institutions have "a duty to protect and foster human life," which they state begins at conception. They added, "No Catholic institution may legitimately work to undermine fundamental human dignity" (Reuters, 1/24).