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Fetuses-aren't-people lawsuit: Bishops to review Catholic hospital's argument

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Colorado's Catholic bishops say they will "undertake a full review" of a lawsuit in which Catholic Health Initiatives, an Englewood-based operator of 78 Catholic hospitals in seventeen states, has argued that it can't be held liable for the deaths of two unborn babies because fetuses are not people. The bishops say the review will examine "the policies and practices of Catholic Health Initiatives to ensure fidelity and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church."

The lawsuit in question is the subject of this week's cover story, "The Meaning of Life." It involves a man named Jeremy Stodghill, who is suing Catholic Health Initiatives and St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City 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 Hospital in 2006. Doctors decided not to do an emergency Cesarean section to try to save the babies -- which Jeremy believes was a terrible mistake.

Catholic Health Initiatives asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. "Under Colorado law, a fetus is not a 'person,'" Catholic Health Initiatives' lawyer wrote, "and plaintiff's claims for wrongful death must therefore be dismissed."

When Westword originally called the Diocese of Pueblo for comment, a spokeswoman referred us to the Colorado Catholic Conference, which describes itself as "a united voice of the three Catholic dioceses (that) speaks on public policy issues." But a spokeswoman for that organization did not return phone calls or e-mails.

Now, the bishops in Pueblo, Denver and Colorado Springs have issued a statement:

The Catholic bishops of Colorado learned recently of the deaths of Lori Stodghill and her two unborn children, which took place at St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City, Colorado in 2006. We wish to extend our solidarity and sympathy to Lori's husband Jeremy, and her daughter, Elizabeth. Please be assured of our ongoing prayers.

From the moment of conception, human beings are endowed with dignity and with fundamental rights, the most foundational of which is life.

Catholics and Catholic institutions have the duty to protect and foster human life, and to witness to the dignity of the human person -- particularly to the dignity of the unborn. No Catholic institution may legitimately work to undermine fundamental human dignity.

Catholic Health Initiatives is a Catholic institution which provides health care services in 14 states, providing care to thousands of people annually. Catholic Health Initiatives has been accused by some of undermining the Catholic position on human life in the course of litigation. Today, representatives of Catholic Health Initiatives assured us of their intention to observe the moral and ethical obligations of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic bishops of Colorado are not able to comment on ongoing legal disputes. However, we will undertake a full review of this litigation, and of the policies and practices of Catholic Health Initiatives to ensure fidelity and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, S.T.L., Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Denver Most Rev. Michael Sheridan, S.Th.D, Bishop of the Diocese of Colorado Springs Most Rev. Fernando Isern, Bishop of the Diocese of Pueblo

Continue for comments from the Archdiocese of Denver's chancellor. J.D. Flynn, the Archdiocese of Denver's chancellor, says the bishops decided to issue a statement because "there were a lot of questions about CHI and their line of argumentation, and a lot of confusion. With some of the media coverage, there began to be confusion about what the church teaches. We want to work with CHI to figure out what their arguments have been and why.... We want people to understand what the church believes about the dignity of all human life, including the life of the unborn."

Flynn says Catholic health care institutions follow guidelines set out in a document published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services."

"CHI talked to us yesterday about their compliance with the ethical and religious directives and their ongoing desire to comply with them," he says. "They didn't talk specifically about their strategic or tactical decisions" with regard to the litigation, he added. But, Flynn says, "We know they take the directives seriously. We want to look into this issue to make sure everything that's gone on was in compliance with the directives -- not only to respect the dignity of the unborn but to witness to it, as well."

Though Colorado's bishops work closely with Catholic Health Initiatives, Flynn says the organization is actually overseen by an office in the Vatican called the Congregation for Consecrated Life. The reason, he says, is because CHI was formed by the merging of Catholic health care institutions formerly run by nuns, who are overseen by that office.

Flynn says the bishops' review is in the early stages and he's not sure what exactly it will entail. But, he says, "a lot of people are curious about this and concerned about this. We want to be as thorough as we can. We want to be fair to the family, we want to be fair to CHI and we want to be fair to Catholics.

"The bishops want to underscore that the Catholic church believes unborn people have dignity and the way we act should reflect that. Until we know all the facts, it's hard to know what that looks like in this particular case."

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

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