COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Catholic bishops of Colorado’s three dioceses said Jan. 24 they plan to review the handling of a civil lawsuit citing “wrongful death” in the case of a woman who died along with her unborn twins at a Catholic hospital.
The hospital is part of the Catholic Health Initiatives network, which “has been accused by some of undermining the Catholic position on human life in the course of litigation,” the bishops said.
Defense lawyers cited a Colorado law that says the unborn are not “persons,” while Catholic teaching holds that life begins at the moment of conception.
“Today, representatives of Catholic Health Initiatives assured us of their intention to observe the moral and ethical obligations of the Catholic Church,” the bishops said, adding that while they could not comment on “ongoing legal disputes,” the prelates planned to “undertake a full review” of the litigation and the network’s “policies and practices.”
The case centers on Lori Stodghill, who was seven months pregnant with twin boys when she began feeling sick on Jan. 1, 2006. Her husband drove her to St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City, which is in the Pueblo Diocese.
The lawsuit states that Stodghill’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, was on call that evening but did not answer his pager. She died of a massive heart attack shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Stodghill’s husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Catholic Health Initiatives, arguing that Staples might not have been able to save his wife but should have tried to save the twins through a Cesarean section.
When the case went to court in Fremont County, lawyers for the multistate Catholic health care network, based in the Denver suburb of Englewood, argued successfully that the unborn twins are not considered “persons” under Colorado law, and therefore a wrongful death lawsuit had no merit.
The basis of the defense – that unborn babies are not persons with legal standing — is controversial because it would seem to contradict the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care” of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
All Catholics hospitals in the United States are required to adhere to the directives, most recently revised by the U.S. bishops in 2001. They guide Catholic health care facilities in addressing a wide range of ethical questions, such as abortion, euthanasia, care for the poor, medical research, treatment of rape victims and other issues.
“Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death,'” the document states. “The church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn and the care of women and their children during and after pregnancy.”
An appellate court judge confirmed the ruling in favor of Catholic Health Initiatives. Stodghill’s lawyers have filed an appeal with the Colorado Supreme Court, which is expected to announce whether it will hear the case within several weeks.
In a statement emailed to Catholic News Service Jan. 25, Michael Romano, national director of media relations for Catholic Health Initiatives, said that “first and foremost, our heartfelt sympathies have always been with the Stodghill family as a result of these tragic circumstances.”
“In this case, St. Thomas More, Centura Health and Catholic Health Initiatives, as Catholic organizations, are in union with the moral teachings of the church,” he said. “The case is now pending and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Centura Health is a system of 13 Colorado hospitals sponsored jointly by Catholic Health Initiatives and Adventist Health System.
In their Jan. 24 statement, released by the Archdiocese of Denver, the Colorado bishops stated that they “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.”
They extended their “solidarity and sympathy” to Jeremy Stodghill, Lori’s husband, and the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth. “Please be assured of our ongoing prayers.”
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver and Bishops Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Fernando Isern of Pueblo issued the statement.
“From the moment of conception, human beings are endowed with dignity and with fundamental rights, the most foundational of which is life,” the bishops said. “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 network of about 170 health care facilities in 14 states, “providing care to thousands of people annually,” they noted.
Ambuul is assistant editor of The Colorado Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Colorado Springs Diocese.