Lori Stodghill was 31-years old, seven-months pregnant with twin boys and feeling sick when she arrived at St. Thomas More hospital in Cañon City on New Year’s Day 2006. 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 church’s defense?
The hospital, and the healthcare provider that runs it, Catholic Health Initiatives, which operated 78 Catholic hospitals in 17 states, have argued that nothing could have been done to save Ms Stodghill.
But despite claiming to follow the directives of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that states the sanctity of life begins ‘from the moment of conception until death,’ Catholic Health’s lawyers have turned the teachings of the Church on their head in their defense against the twins’ deaths.
They are arguing that a fetus is not a person and ‘unborn persons’ cannot be the subject of a wrongful death case because they do not have the same rights as those born alive.
Given the Catholic Church’s hostility to President Obama’s health care plan during the past election, the Colorado church’s stand is indefensible. After all:
Catholic dioceses in Tennessee, New York, and Pennsylvania are also suing the federal government over the contraceptive mandate for employers. Those Catholic groups say the mandate violates their religious beliefs about the sanctity of life.
In 2010, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix lost its standing as a Catholic hospital after doctors there performed an abortion they believed was needed to save a mother’s life. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Roman Catholic diocese of Phoenix said that the hospital should have followed Catholic teaching, which bans any abortion.
And this position isn’t solely limited to Colorado.
The Colorado lawsuit isn’t the first time that a Catholic hospital has argued that it is not liable for the death of a fetus. In 1996, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a mom there could not sue St. Vincent’s Medical Center of Jacksonville over the death of her unborn child.
William Kuntz, St. Vincent’s trial attorney, defended the hospital’s stance at the time.
“We’ve never contended that a fetus is not a person,” Kuntz told the Orlando Sentinel in 1996. “We’ve always said that an unborn person does not have the right to bring a lawsuit in Florida.”
Given this, the church’s issue doesn’t seem to be about belief systems and spiritual guidance. It comes down to money. But it’s wrong to be doctrinaire on the matter of personhood when it comes to issues of women’s reproductive rights, then completely reverse course when the bottom line of the morality play hinges on the bottom line of the bank account.
But this is a case where a bad situation can lead to bad law. The right-to-life movement in Colorado is hoping the court rules against the hospital, because that reinforces its stand concerning that a fetus is a person. In this instance, a church loss would have a broad impact on all hospitals in Colorado.
The hospital should have settled out of court, but it has won the early rounds, with rulings that under Colorado law, there is no wrongful death in this case. The family is now taking the case to the Colorado Supreme Court.
- Catholic hospital chain beats malpractice suit by saying fetuses aren’t people (rawstory.com)
- Catholic Hospital Conveniently Claims Fetuses Aren’t People in Malpractice Lawsuit (jezebel.com)
- Fetuses not people, Catholic hospital says in court (usatoday.com)
- In malpractice case, Catholic hospital argues fetuses aren’t people (coloradoindependent.com)
- Bishops will review Catholic hospital defense that fetuses aren’t people (denverpost.com)