MORE

Fetuses-aren't-people argument was "morally wrong," says Catholic hospital

Catholic Health Initiatives has acknowledged that it was "morally wrong" for its lawyers to argue in court that fetuses aren't people. As explained in our cover story "The Meaning of Life," the Englewood-based operator of 78 Catholic hospitals in seventeen states claimed that it couldn't be held liable for the deaths of two unborn babies who died at St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City because "under Colorado law, a fetus is not a 'person.'"

The lawsuit was filed by a man named Jeremy Stodghill, who sued Catholic Health Initiatives and St. Thomas More Hospital for the wrongful death of his wife and unborn twin sons. His wife, Lori Stodghill, was 28 weeks pregnant when she died of a pulmonary embolism at St. Thomas More in 2006. Doctors decided not to do an emergency Cesarean section to try to save the babies -- which Jeremy believes was a terrible mistake.

After learning of the case, Colorado's Catholic bishops announced they would "undertake a full review" of the lawsuit. "From the moment of conception, human beings are endowed with dignity and with fundamental rights," the bishops said in a statement.

Last week, the three bishops met with four Catholic Health Initiatives executives, including the organization's president and CEO, Kevin Lofton. Today, both the bishops and CHI issued statements, which are on view below.

"CHI representatives acknowledged that it was morally wrong for attorneys representing St. Thomas More Hospital to cite the state's Wrongful Death Act in defense of this lawsuit," Catholic Health Initiatives' statement says. "That law does not consider fetuses to be persons, which directly contradicts the moral teachings of the Church."

The organization also pledged to refrain from further arguments about Colorado's wrongful death law, which it says does not allow fetuses to sue. "Although the argument was legally correct," the statement says, "recourse to an unjust law was morally wrong."

For their part, the bishops said they "commend CHI for its rapid acknowledgement of this situation and its commitment to rectifying any harm it may have caused. We join CHI in affirming the fundamental truth that human life, human dignity, and human rights begin at conception. No law can ever mitigate God-given human rights."

Both statements also mention Catholic Health Initiatives' legal victories: "Two courts of law -- the Circuit Court in Fremont County and the Colorado Court of Appeals -- have supported the position of CHI and St. Thomas More Hospital that nothing done by doctors, nurses and other staff members would have changed this horrible outcome."

Stodghill has now appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. If the high court were to hear the case, Catholic Health Initiatives says, "the Wrongful Death Act would not be among their considerations." Instead, it says, the main question is whether the hospital was negligent in caring for Lori Stodghill and her unborn twins. "The Circuit and Appellate courts have overwhelmingly concluded otherwise," Catholic Health Initiatives notes.

But Beth Krulewitch, one of Stodghill's attorneys, says that's not entirely true. "What I first and foremost asked the Supreme Court to do is to send the case back to the Court of Appeals to decide the issue of whether the Wrongful Death Act precludes this type of claim," she says. In other words, she'd like the appeals court to rule on whether a father such as Stodghill can sue for the wrongful death of his unborn babies.

Furthermore, she says Catholic Health Initiatives' statement that it has "never pursued a collection" of $47,000 in legal fees from Stodghill is also only partially true. While the hospital didn't ask to garnish Stodghill's wages, it did ask for legal fees. Once they were awarded, Krulewitch says, "the hospital came to us and said it would give up the $47,000 if Jeremy agreed not to appeal and we said, 'No, we're not going to do that.'"

When Krulewitch filed a motion asking the court to postpone the payment of those fees, she says Catholic Health Initiatives opposed it. Stodghill ended up declaring bankruptcy.

Continue to read the two statements.

Statement from Catholic Health Initiatives

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Feb. 4, 2013 -- There has been considerable attention and controversy recently involving the lawsuit over the tragic death in 2006 of Lori Stodghill and her twin unborn sons at St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City, which is sponsored by Catholic Health Initiatives.

Four senior Catholic Health Initiatives executives, including Kevin Lofton, president and chief executive officer, met last week with Colorado's three top Church officials -- the Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, Archbishop of Denver; the Most. Rev. Michael Sheridan, Bishop of Colorado Springs; and the Most Rev. Fernando Isern, Bishop of Pueblo.

In the discussion with the Church leaders, CHI representatives acknowledged that it was morally wrong for attorneys representing St. Thomas More Hospital to cite the state's Wrongful Death Act in defense of this lawsuit. That law does not consider fetuses to be persons, which directly contradicts the moral teachings of the Church.

The representatives also unequivocally affirmed CHI's strict adherence to one of the Church's most basic moral commitments -- that every person is created in the image and likeness of God and that life begins at the moment of conception. It is an unfortunate and regrettable point of fact that Colorado law, as it now stands, fails to adequately protect the rights of the unborn.

Further, CHI expressed support for and solidarity with Lori Stodghill's husband, Jeremy, and the couple's daughter, Elizabeth. The prayers of CHI and the Catholic Church have always been with the Stodghill family throughout a heartbreaking ordeal that has now lasted more than seven years.

In their review of the facts in this case, the bishops also affirmed the exceptional care provided to Lori Stodghill at St. Thomas More Hospital. In fact, two courts of law - the Circuit Court in Fremont County and the Colorado Court of Appeals - have supported the position of CHI and St. Thomas More Hospital that nothing done by doctors, nurses and other staff members would have changed this horrible outcome.

Indeed, District Court Judge David Thorson dismissed the case before trial, ruling that the evidence did not "present a triable issue of fact." While cited as a point of law by attorneys for St.Thomas More Hospital, the Wrongful Death Act, which both CHI and Church officials consider to be unjust, has played no role in the appeal process.

This case is now being considered for review by the Colorado Supreme Court. If the justices agree to hear the case, the Wrongful Death Act would not be among their considerations. The legal argument rests on "causation" -- that is, whether or not the medical personnel at St. Thomas More Hospital were negligent in caring for the 31-year old Lori Stodghill, who was 28 weeks pregnant with her twin unborn sons. The Circuit and Appellate courts have overwhelmingly concluded otherwise.

CHI has agreed that attorneys for St. Thomas More Hospital will not cite the Wrongful Death Act, which does not allow fetuses to sue, in any future legal hearings of this case. Although the argument was legally correct, recourse to an unjust law was morally wrong.

Further, CHI officials corrected erroneous information about sanctions against Jeremy Stodghill. Catholic Health Initiatives and St. Thomas More Hospital did not file a lien or pursue a claim in bankruptcy court against Jeremy Stodghill. One of the physician co-defendants, who is not an employee of Catholic Health Initiatives or St. Thomas More Hospital, did pursue garnishment. Mr. Stodghill filed bankruptcy to stop the garnishment.

Under Colorado law, St. Thomas More Hospital was entitled to recover actual costs incurred in the case, including such expenses as deposition charges and payments to expert witnesses. St. Thomas More Hospital and Catholic Health Initiatives were awarded approximately $47,000. Catholic Health Initiatives has never pursued a collection of those costs.

CHI pledged its firm commitment, as always, to the best interests of patients and its adherence to the moral obligations of the Church, which were not strictly followed in this case by attorneys for the hospital.

Statement from Catholic Bishops

Feb. 4, 2013

Each human life is a sacred gift, created as a unique and unrepeatable expression of God's love. Life is given by God, and the right to life is a fundamental good, without which no other rights can be enjoyed. Because life is endowed with dignity from the moment of conception to the time of natural death, just societies should create laws that comprehensively protect it.

In 2006, Lori Stodghill, who was pregnant with twin sons, tragically died at St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City, Colorado after Lori suffered a pulmonary embolism. After their deaths, the Stodghill family took legal action against the doctors involved, and St. Thomas More, which is sponsored by Catholic Health Initiatives, an institution of the Catholic Church. The lawsuit alleged that the hospital failed to sufficiently try to save Ms. Stodghill and her children.

Attorneys for St. Thomas More argued that the hospital provided the best possible medical care to Lori Stodghill and her sons, and that there was no possibility of saving their lives. Two courts affirmed that argument.

Evidence indicates that St. Thomas More Hospital undertook all possible efforts to save Lori Stodghill. Medical experts testified to that effect. They also testified that the Stodghill children tragically died before medical care commenced, so an emergency C-section would not have saved them. We have every reason to believe that St. Thomas More Hospital provided excellent and conscientious medical care in this case.

Attorneys for St. Thomas More Hospital argued that because unborn children are not defined as persons under Colorado's Wrongful Death Act, the law did not permit this lawsuit. We became aware of this tragic situation on Thursday, January 24, 2013. We at once contacted the leadership of CHI for clarification.

CHI was unaware that legal counsel for St. Thomas More had aligned itself with an argument based upon an unjust law. CHI officials have assured us that they believed it was "morally wrong" to make recourse to an unjust law. They have also assured us that they will no longer utilize this unjust law if the case is heard before additional courts.

CHI joins us in our commitment to work for comprehensive change in Colorado's law, so that the unborn may enjoy the same legal protections as all other persons.

We commend CHI for its rapid acknowledgement of this situation and its commitment to rectifying any harm it may have caused. We join CHI in affirming the fundamental truth that human life, human dignity, and human rights begin at conception. No law can ever mitigate God-given human rights. All Catholic persons and institutions, indeed all men and women of good will, share the solemn responsibility to support efforts aimed at establishing legal protection for the unborn.

Finally, we join Catholic Health Initiatives in expressing solidarity for the Stodghill family. The loss they have experienced is unimaginable. They have offered to stand with the Stodghills, and to support them in their suffering. We commend that commitment, and offer our own prayers and support to the Stodghill family.

Catholic healthcare institutions are, and should, be held to the high standard of Jesus Christ himself, who is our divine and eternal healer. We pray that the good work of Catholic hospitals in America may continue to provide healing, support, and witness to the essential dignity of all human life.

Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila

Archbishop of Denver

Most Reverend Michael Sheridan

Bishop of Colorado Springs

Most Reverend Fernando Isern

Bishop of Pueblo

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Fetuses aren't people, says Catholic hospital: Does argument contradict church doctrine?"

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com


Sponsor Content