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Lawsuit against Catholic Health Initiatives appealed to Colorado Supreme Court.

Written by John Tomasic for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Cross-posted in partnership with the Colorado Independent.

For further coverage of the treatment of pregnant women in Catholic Hospitals, click here.

Lori Stodghill was 31-years old, seven-months pregnant with twin boys and feeling sick when she arrived at St. Thomas More hospital in Cañon City on New Year's Day 2006. She was vomiting and short of breath and she passed out as she was being wheeled into an examination room. Medical staff tried to resuscitate her but, as became clear only later, a main artery feeding her lungs was clogged and the clog led to a massive heart attack. Stodghill's obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, who also happened to be the obstetrician on call for emergencies that night, never answered a page. His patient died at the hospital less than an hour after she arrived and her twins died in her womb.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Stodghill's husband Jeremy, a prison guard, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of himself and the couple's then-two-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Staples should have made it to the hospital, his lawyers argued, or at least instructed the frantic emergency room staff to perform a caesarian-section. The procedure likely would not have saved the mother, a testifying expert said, but it may have saved the twins.

The lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based nonprofit that runs St. Thomas More Hospital as well as roughly 170 other health facilities in 17 states. Last year, the hospital chain reported national assets of $15 billion. The organization's mission, according to its promotional literature, is to "nurture the healing ministry of the Church" and to be guided by "fidelity to the Gospel." Toward those ends, Catholic Health facilities seek to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules have stirred controversy for decades, mainly for forbidding non-natural birth control and abortions. "Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life 'from the moment of conception until death,'" the directives state. "The Church's defense of life encompasses the unborn."

The directives can complicate business deals for Catholic Health, as they can for other Catholic health care providers, partly by spurring political resistance. In 2011, the Kentucky attorney general and governor nixed a plan in which Catholic Health sought to merge with and ultimately gain control of publicly-funded hospitals in Louisville. The officials were reacting to citizen concerns that access to reproductive and end-of-life services would be curtailed. According to The Denver Post, similar fears slowed the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth's plan over the last few years to buy out Exempla Lutheran Medical Center and Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in the Denver metro area.

But when it came to mounting a defense in the Stodghill case, Catholic Health's lawyers effectively turned the Church directives on their head. Catholic organizations have for decades fought to change federal and state laws that fail to protect "unborn persons," and Catholic Health's lawyers in this case had the chance to set precedent bolstering anti-abortion legal arguments. Instead, they are arguing state law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds that those fetuses are not persons with legal rights.

As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, the court "should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term 'person,' as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive. Colorado state courts define 'person' under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses."

The Catholic Health attorneys have so far won decisions from Fremont County District Court Judge David M. Thorson and now-retired Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Roy.

In September, the Stodghills' Aspen-based attorney Beth Krulewitch working with Denver-based attorney Dan Gerash appealed the case to the state Supreme Court. In their petition they argued that Judges Thorson and Roy overlooked key facts and set bad legal precedent that would open loopholes in Colorado's malpractice law, relieving doctors of responsibility to patients whose viable fetuses are at risk.

Whether the high court decides to take the case, kick it back down to the appellate court for a second review or accept the decisions as they stand, the details of the arguments the lawyers involved have already mounted will likely renew debate about Church health care directives and trigger sharp reaction from activists on both sides of the debate looking to underline the apparent hypocrisy of Catholic Health's defense.

At press time, Catholic Health did not return messages seeking comment. The Stodghills' attorneys declined to comment while the case was still being considered for appeal.

The Supreme Court is set to decide whether to take the case in the next few weeks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  no question, the Catholic Church (7+ / 0-)

    is being entirely hypocritical here.  They only believe in the sanctity of life if it does not hit their pocket book.  But this should come as no surprise to anyone, since the Catholic Church is a thoroughly corrupt institution which encourages and protects pedophilia and child rape by its officers. ( Moving known child rapists to new parishes where the congegants do not know of the priest's previous crimes can only be considered encouraging further crimes.)

    In the case at hand, however, the issue of whether or not a wrongful death statute should apply is difficult.   Was it malpractice to fail to answer a page ( presuming it was sent and received)? perhaps. Can you have wrongful death of a fetus?  more difficult. The Catholic Church has often argued for personhood. Certainly , most members of this community would not like to see personhood enacted with the other ramifications which would result.  Many people have been tried and convicted of killing a fetus by assaulting the mother.  Does failure to arrive or to perform a c-section constitute assault? I'm not sure.  

    As my father used to say,"We have the best government money can buy."

    by BPARTR on Thu Jan 24, 2013 at 11:32:48 AM PST

    •  In the interests of saving electrons, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      grover, BPARTR

      the words "being" and "here" are completely unnecessary in your first sentence.

    •  I may be a little rusty on my Catholic (0+ / 0-)

      doctrine since I haven't been to Mass since they switched from Latin, but I don't think is is a matter of doctrine that the fetus (or embryo or fertilized egg) is a person. According to doctrine, the entity in question has a soul and that is the reason for opposition to abortion.  That is entirely different from saying that a fetus has has the legal status of a person. Opposition to abortion for the Catholic Church isn't a legal question; it is a theological one. The Church or associated organizations have undoubtedly supported personhood laws as a way of forcing their doctrine on everyone but personhood isn't inherently part of the doctrine because it is purely a legal concept.

      I despise the Catholic Church and strongly support a woman's right to choose but claiming that the fetuses were not legal persons is not in conflict with the Catholic doctrine I was raised with. It is, of course, in conflict with any support they have given or will give to personhood laws. So, legally hypocrites but not doctrinal hypocrites.

      You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is "Never get involved in a land war in Asia".

      by yellowdog on Thu Jan 24, 2013 at 12:17:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  civil case... (0+ / 0-)

      not criminal.  So assult doesn't apply.  But you are right to point out the rank hypocrisy here.

      'Goodwill' between the GOP and the President is as abundant as unicorn farts - Me'

      by RichM on Thu Jan 24, 2013 at 12:18:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Nah. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Just because they believe the law ought to be "X" doesn't mean they act like it's "~X."  Ex: Obama supports a cap on mortgage interest deduction, but he's not being hypocritical in taking the full deduction now.  It would be hypocritical if he supported changing the deduction for, say, everyone except ex-Presidents, just as it would be hypocritical for the Catholic hospital to support fetal personhood rules for everyone but Catholic hospitals, but one can exploit a given law even if one opposes its current form.

    •  BPARTR - it's not hypocritical at all (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      In court any lawyer has a fiduciary duty to his client to argue the law as it exists, not as his client wishes it to be. Not taking advantage of the state's current legal status of a fetus in the defense of this case, would be malpractice.

      "let's talk about that"

      by VClib on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 08:33:31 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  note (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Pandoras Box

        I never said the lawyer was hypocritical- I said that the Church was.  The attorney has a duty to try to make any case which might be accepted by the court- the Church does not have a duty to argue or to ask the lawyer to argue something which is at odds with its political position.

        As my father used to say,"We have the best government money can buy."

        by BPARTR on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 10:05:26 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Money trumps God. nt (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ExStr8, Pandoras Box

    "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

    by Bob Love on Thu Jan 24, 2013 at 11:37:59 AM PST

  •  meh. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catholic Health's lawyers in this case had the chance to set precedent bolstering anti-abortion legal arguments
    First, you probably mean Catholic Health's insurance company's lawyers, since I'm guessing the insurance company is either in on the defense or leading it.

    Second, mere failure to pursue a given defense sets no precedents.

    •  Maybe (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      johnny wurster

      The article identifies the attorney as Catholic Health's.  It is also possible that Catholic Health is self-insured.

      "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

      by Old Left Good Left on Thu Jan 24, 2013 at 01:31:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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