Catholic hospital takes surprise stance in lawsuit

Heather Surovik, who lost her unborn son when her car was struck by a drunken driver, speaks at a news conference Jan. 28. (Brennan Linsley ~ Associated Press)

DENVER -- It was a startling assertion that seemed an about-face from church doctrine: A Catholic hospital arguing in a Colorado court that twin fetuses that died in its care were not, under state law, human beings.

When the two-year-old court filing surfaced last month, it triggered a storm of criticism -- because the legal argument seemed to clash with the church's stance that life begins at conception.

It now is fueling a debate in Colorado and beyond about whether fetuses should have legal rights.

On Monday, the hospital and the state's bishops released a statement saying it was "morally wrong" to make the legal argument.

Colorado lawmakers are weighing how far they should go in penalizing acts that harm a fetus, and some worry the case could diminish the Catholic Church's credibility in advocating more rights for the unborn.

Last week Colorado bishops met with executives at Catholic Healthcare Initiatives, a branch of the church that operates the hospital at the center of the case. The two released separate statements Monday saying CHI executives had been unaware of the legal arguments and pledging to "work for comprehensive change in Colorado's law, so that the unborn may enjoy the same legal protections as other persons."

It's difficult to quantify how many states allow wrongful death suits on behalf of the unborn; each has different case law and judicial interpretation. The pro-life Americans United for Life estimates that 38 permit such lawsuits. A federal law makes it a crime to harm a fetus while committing other federal crimes.

The debate has been especially heated in Colorado, which has long battled over the legal status of unborn children. For example, Colorado has been ground zero for the "personhood" movement, which pushes laws that give fertilized eggs all the legal rights of human beings. Opponents warn that such laws would outlaw all forms of abortion and some types of birth control. Voters here so far have overwhelmingly rejected such proposals.

In 1986, a federal court ruled that fetuses are people for purposes of wrongful death lawsuits in Colorado, but state courts have offered conflicting views. This latest case further calls the matter into question.

The case centers on St. Thomas More Medical Center in Canon City, a few hours south of Denver, and a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a husband who lost his pregnant wife.

Lori Stodghill was 28 weeks into her pregnancy when, in 2006, she began vomiting and feeling short of breath, according to court papers. Her husband, Jeremy, took her to the emergency room of St. Thomas More, where she collapsed and went into cardiac arrest.

Doctors and nurses tried to revive her, but she was declared dead from pulmonary embolism. No one tried to remove the fetuses via cesarean section, and they perished, too, court papers said.

Jeremy Stodghill sued the hospital, some doctors and CHI, which owns the company that operates Thomas More. Attorneys for CHI in 2010 filed court papers asking a judge to dismiss the case because the plaintiffs couldn't prove negligent care killed Lori Stodghill and her fetuses. They argued that "under Colorado law, a fetus is not a 'person,' and Plaintiff's claims for wrongful death must therefore be dismissed."

The judge agreed, finding that previous state cases required a fetus to be "born alive" to have a legal claim. An appellate court upheld the dismissal. Stodghill's attorneys now are asking the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

On Jan. 28, no church representatives testified as a state legislative committee considered a proposal to make it a crime to kill a fetus. Republican Rep. Janak Joshi said his measure was not meant to wade into abortion politics but rather enable prosecutors to file additional charges in cases like the Aurora theater shooting. One victim was so severely wounded during the massacre and miscarried; prosecutors could not file murder charges on her unborn child's behalf.

Witness Heather Surovik told the committee about how a drunken driver injured her last year and killed her 8 1/2-month-old unborn son, Brady. At the hospital, the emergency staff removed him from her body and dressed his corpse in infant clothes. Prosecutors could not file vehicular manslaughter charges because Brady was not legally a person.

Democrats and an attorney for Planned Parenthood argued that Joshi's measure, as written, could enshrine legal rights for fetuses in state law and lead to an abortion ban. The committee voted it down, but Democrats later unveiled their own bill that would make it a crime to kill a fetus during a criminal act committed against a pregnant woman. That measure specifically states that the intent is to neither outlaw abortions nor give unborn children additional rights.

A hearing on that proposal is scheduled later this month.