A Colorado lawsuit has raised serious questions about the consistency of the Catholic Church’s position about the status of fetuses. (WJBC file photo)
By Robert Bradley
Recently many groups hosted public rallies to mark the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. Some groups rallied to show support for the Court’s decision, while others met to urge reversal of the ruling. Perhaps the most contentious part of the Court’s decision was that a fetus is not a person, and is not entitled to protection by the U.S. Constitution. This part of the decision infuriated the Catholic Church and Catholic-affiliated groups that have long argued that life begins at conception, and so fetuses are persons worthy of legal protection.
Yet a Colorado lawsuit has raised serious questions about the consistency of the Catholic Church’s position about the status of fetuses. The tragedy at the center of the lawsuit began on New Year’s Day 2006. Lori Stodghill, who was seven months pregnant with twin boys, called her obstetrician to say that she was vomiting and had difficulty breathing. He told her to go to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, which happened to be operated by Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) that runs a number of Catholic hospitals in several states.
Lori’s husband, Jeremy, left work to drive Lori to the hospital. During the drive Lori’s condition got worse. Soon after arrival at the emergency room Lori went into cardiac arrest. The efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful, and Lori and her twin-unborn sons all died.
Eventually, Jeremy filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CHI, the hospital, the obstetrician, and the emergency room doctor who treated Lori. The primary contention in the lawsuit is that an emergency C-section was not performed on Lori that may well have saved the lives of the twin boys, and possibly Lori’s life as well.
CHI took the lead in defending against the lawsuit. One of its arguments was that there was no basis to the lawsuit since under Colorado law a fetus is not recognized as a person. Thus the lawsuit should be dismissed for lack of merit. This argument has proven successful as both a state trial court and an intermediate court of appeals have agreed with it, and ruled for the dismissal of the lawsuit.
But that argument has not escaped public notice since it appears to be in direct conflict with the Directives of the Catholic Church issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Directives state in part that “Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death’”. The Directives continue to state that “the Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn”.
So how can a Catholic health organization make an argument in court based on state law but is in direct conflict with its governing mission as stipulated by the Church? Is it sufficient for the argument to be a winning legal tactic that avoided a sizable monetary court judgment?
A group of Catholic bishops in Colorado are currently reviewing the argument to see if it contradicted the Church’s stance on fetuses. In their statement publicly announcing the review, the bishops stated that “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”. So if the review reveals a fundamental contradiction between the legal argument of CHI and the doctrines of the Church, then will the bishops urge the group to make some type of settlement with Jeremy in regard to the loss of the twin boys?
The lawsuit is currently on appeal to the state supreme court. Attorneys for Jeremy contend that the lower court rulings create loopholes in the state’s malpractice law alleviating doctors of the responsibility to treat patients whose viable fetuses are at risk. Abdicating doctors of that responsibility would also certainly contravene Catholic doctrine and yet might be an unforeseen consequence of the legal argument made by CHI.
Bob Bradley is solely responsible for the opinions expressed above. These opinions do not necessarily reflect those of WJBC, Radio Bloomington or Cumulus Media staff or management.
Bradley was a full-time professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University where he has been since 1982. He has received several recognitions including: Carnegie Scholar for Civic Engagement, Constitution Trail Friend of the Year, and Faculty Star distinction by ISU Athletics. He dearly loves his wife, Reenie, of more than 25 years, and his daughter, Erin. He is an avid reader, devout sports enthusiast, gardener, golfer, and bird watcher.