To Avoid Wrongful Death Lawsuit, Colorado Catholic Hospital Argues a Fetus Isn’t a Person

Malpractice suit being appealed to Colorado Supreme Court
US News • Views: 26,975

St. Thomas More Hospital, operated by Catholic Health Initiatives, argues its way out of a wrongful death lawsuit by claiming that fetuses are not people. The case is heading to the Colorado Supreme Court.

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.

And lest we think that this is merely some legal trick conjured by the lawyers, the client had to approve this defense from the outset.

There are other potential methods of defending a malpractice suit in this case, but the hospital chain, and the Church official at the hospital chain who were involved in the decision, agreed that they would go against the stated church doctrine on abortion and treating a fetus as a person.

In this case, it was the monetary interests of defending the hospital against a malpractice suit to bring out the hypocrisy of the church on this matter. It also presents a test case to show the limits of church doctrine as it relates to health policy, abortion, and the treatment of pregnant women.

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