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Is a fetus a person? The Colorado Supreme Court may have to decide.

On the morning of the day she died, 31-year-old Lori Stodghill balanced her breakfast plate on her very pregnant belly and watched it bob up and down as the twin boys inside her kicked and kicked. The saucer-sized dish was "bouncing back and forth," her husband, Jeremy Stodghill, remembers — a sure sign that at 28 weeks, the babies were strong and healthy.

But by that afternoon, Lori wasn't feeling well. At about 3:30 p.m., she called her obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, and reported that she was vomiting and out of breath. It was New Year's Day 2006, and Staples wasn't working in his office, so he instructed her to go to the emergency room at St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City, a mile from where she lived.

Jeremy left his job as a prison guard to drive her there. It didn't seem like an emergency at the time, he recalls. Lori told him she was probably dehydrated and needed some fluids.

But in the few minutes it took to drive to the hospital, Lori's condition worsened. She was struggling to breathe by the time Jeremy fetched a wheelchair, took her inside and went to park their van. When he walked back into the ER, he found a nurse rubbing his wife's chest. "Lori, you have to wake up," the nurse was saying. "Her head rolled back, looked up at me and then collapsed onto her chest," Jeremy recalls. "And the nurse hollered, 'I need help in here!'"

Lori was suffering a cardiac arrest and had stopped breathing due to a pulmonary embolism caused by a blood clot that traveled from her leg to her lungs. Two of the risk factors for the deadly condition are pregnancy and obesity, and Lori was experiencing both.

For the next hour, Jeremy stood by as hospital staff frantically tried to bring his wife back to life. After helping to hoist Lori, who at seven months pregnant weighed more than 400 pounds, onto a bed, Jeremy melted into the background and was eventually escorted to an adjacent room, where someone brought him juice and cookies. "I just become a wallflower," Jeremy says.

At some point that afternoon, he was handed a phone to speak to Staples, who never ended up coming to the hospital. "He said, 'Well, what do you want to do? Take the babies? Take the babies?'" Jeremy remembers. "I kept responding, 'I'm not a doctor!'"

A nurse listened for fetal heartbeats, according to depositions taken later. When she didn't hear any, the doctors figured the babies were dead and decided against doing a perimortem Cesarean section, an emergency procedure that can save mothers and babies. Lori's unborn sons stayed with her. Eventually, all three were pronounced dead.

Nearly two years later, after careful consideration and consultations with lawyers, Jeremy sued the hospital, Staples and ER doctor John Pelner for the wrongful death of his wife and twins. He believes the doctors should have done the C-section.

But the hospital and the organization that operates it — Englewood-based Catholic Health Initiatives, which operates 78 Catholic hospitals in seventeen states, including nine Centura Health hospitals in Colorado — have argued that nothing could have been done to save Lori.

Furthermore, the organization has repeatedly asked judges — in Jeremy's initial lawsuit and on appeal — to dismiss the wrongful-death claims with regard to the twins based on a legal argument that would seem to contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church: that is, that a fetus is not a person.

It's an argument that may be settled by the Colorado Supreme Court.

See also:
- Fetuses-aren't-people lawsuit: Bishops to review Catholic hospital's argument
- Fetuses aren't people, says Catholic hospital: Does argument contradict church doctrine?
- Fetus = person? District court judges have come to different conclusions

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Jeremy and Lori met online in 1999. He was a burly former lumberjack who was working as a corrections officer at the now-shuttered prison in Walsenberg. She was a strong-willed nurse with the state Department of Corrections. They met in person in May of 2000, and a few months later, at a Toby Keith concert at the Colorado State Fair, Jeremy asked Lori to marry him.

"She was cute," Jeremy says. "She loved me for me."

Born in Colorado Springs, Lori was raised in Cañon City by her mother, Susan Wilson, a travel agent who often took her daughter along on trips. They went to Mexico and California, and when Lori fulfilled a dream by graduating from nursing school, Wilson took her to Florida.

"She was my best friend," Wilson says. "She wanted to help people and be there to take care of them."

In her spare time, Lori loved shopping, listening to country music and getting her nails done. During the holidays, she'd wear nursing scrubs decorated with jack-o-lanterns, turkeys or Christmas trees and have her nails painted to match. Lori was also enamored of motorcycles and had several tattoos of Harley-Davidsons and roses. She hoped to own a bike some day.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar