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Fetus = person? District court judges have come to different conclusions

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This week's cover story, "The Meaning of Life," tells the story behind a seemingly contradictory legal argument being made by Englewood-based Catholic Health Initiatives: that a fetus is not a person. The court case in which it asserts that claim has now been appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. If the justices decide to hear it, they'll have a chance to answer a confounding question that has caused district court judges to come to different conclusions.

The case that's been appealed to the high court involves a father who's suing St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City and its operator, Catholic Health Initiatives, for the wrongful death of his wife and unborn twin sons. His wife, Lori Stodghill, was 28 weeks pregnant when she arrived at St. Thomas More Hospital, complaining of vomiting and shortness of breath. Within minutes, she suffered a cardiac arrest due to a pulmonary embolism. Doctors decided not to perform an emergency Cesarean section and instead focused their efforts on reviving Stodghill. But they were unsuccessful. About an hour after the 31-year-old mother-to-be arrived, she -- and her babies -- were pronounced dead.

Stodghill's husband, Jeremy, believes doctors should have done the C-section. He sued for wrongful death in Fremont County District Court, but the judge dismissed his case. Judge David Thorson agreed with an argument first made by Catholic Health Initiatives: that by law, fetuses are not people and therefore, Jeremy can't sue for the death of his unborn sons. Colorado's wrongful death law simply says that one can sue for the wrongful death of a "person," they argued; it doesn't make any mention of fetuses.

Other district court judges have reached differing opinions in similar situations.

In 2005, Summit County District Court Judge Terry Ruckriegle ruled that the husband of a woman who was nine months pregnant could sue his wife's doctor for the wrongful death of his wife and unborn baby girl, whom the couple had already named Shannon. In his lengthy decision, Ruckriegle acknowledged that the law is "ambiguous," but found that drawing the line between a non-person and a person at the point at which a baby can live outside the womb, which most doctors agree is about 24 weeks gestation, "is in harmony with the plain language definition for 'person.'"

Judge Ruckriegle is now retired. In deciding the Summit County case, he says that to him, "it came down to the whole issue of viability. Could that fetus be a person in that it could live independently if that were the circumstance that came about?"

In 2006, El Paso County District Court Judge David Miller came to the opposite conclusion. Faced with a case in which a mother was suing her doctor after her baby died at only eight weeks gestation, Miller denied the mother's request to bring a claim on behalf of her non-viable unborn baby. But whether the baby could have lived outside the womb seemed to play no part in his decision. "The Colorado legislature, not the Court, is vested with determining when and how a wrongful death damages action should be brought in the name of a fetus, whether viable or otherwise," he wrote in a ruling.

The only thing the two judges agreed on was that "Colorado appellate case law provides precious little relevant guidance in this area," in Miller's words. Now, the Supreme Court justices have a chance to change that. But will they? We'll post updates as they become available.

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

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