Catholic Hospital's argument in Colorado court that fetuses aren't people captivates the Internet

Colorado Bishops to review lawsuit

DENVER - In apparent contrast to typical Church doctrine, lawyers for a Catholic hospital in Canon City are arguing fetuses aren't people, in response to a wrongful death lawsuit that is now being appealed to the state Supreme Court. Although the court case has stalled, a recent article gave it a burst of national attention.

Lori Stodghill died of pulmonary emboli on Jan. 1, 2006 at St. Thomas More Hospital, according to a district court judge's summary judgment on the case in 2010. At the time of her death, Stodghill was pregnant with twins who did not survive.

Stodghill's husband, Jeremy, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of himself and the couple's daughter, Elizabeth.

Judge David Thorson was the first to rule against the Stodghill family. In his summary judgment from Dec. 2010, the judge sided with the hospital's argument that "to be a 'person' one must at some point have been born alive."

The hospital's legal argument appears to be a notable departure from that position, but it is couched in Colorado legal precedent, instead of religious belief.

Referencing the hospital organization's promotional literature in an article about the case, The Colorado Independent wrote that "Catholic Health facilities seek to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops."

"The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn," the article quotes.

According to the judge's ruling, the hospital's lawyers argued that a "person" covered by Colorado's wrongful death statue does not include a fetus which was not born or delivered alive. Lawyers for Stodghill argued that a viable fetus should be considered a person for the purposes of the statute.

The judge sided with the hospital.

"The Colorado general assembly is and has been free to extend the scope of the wrongful death statute to causes of action on behalf of unborn fetuses, viable or not. To date, it has chosen not to do so," Thorson wrote.

The ruling was affirmed by the court of appeals in August of 2012 and appealed to the State Supreme Court on Sept. 9, 2012, court spokesman Rob McCallum said.

McCallum pointed out that the Supreme Court accepts only a small fraction of the cases appealed to them. This case, given the designation 12SC730, has not yet been accepted.

Based on that timeframe, McCallum was at a loss to explain why the case has gotten so much news coverage during the past day.

The story that seems to have sparked the fire of recent coverage for the case was written by John Tomasic of the Colorado Independent. His story was picked up by other Internet sites, including Gawker.com.

"I thought it was a great story and, as you know, I'm really gratified that a lot of other people do too," he told 7NEWS.

Tomasic said the story came to his attention through an editor in his organization. He said the editor learned about the case from one of the lawyers involved, but wasn't sure which side the lawyer was on.

-- Bishops reviewing lawsuit --

Colorado's three Catholic Bishops issued a statement Thursday evening on the controversy:

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, Colo. 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 Spring

Most Rev. Fernando Isern, Bishop of the Diocese of Pueblo
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