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Colorado Supreme Court Rejects Catholic Health Case, Punts On Fetal Rights

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From The Colorado Independent's John Tomasic.

DENVER- The national media storm came and went. The Colorado bishops issued their condemnation. And the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Catholic Health Initiatives, Englewood-based national nonprofit, won't have to go to court again and it won't have to pay damages in the lawsuit tied to the 2006 emergency-room deaths of Lori Stodghill and her unborn twins. The state high court justices issued their decision April 22 without comment (pdf).

"They won, and they won with an argument the Church said publicly -- and they agreed publicly -- was immoral," said Beth Krulewitch, attorney for Lori's husband, Jeremy, and their daughter Elizabeth.

Lori Stodghill was seven-months pregnant when she died of a heart attack in the emergency room at Cañon City's St Thomas More Hospital, which is run by Catholic Health. Lori's doctor, Pelham Staples, was on call that day but never came to the hospital. At one point, he phoned Jeremy Stodghill to ask if he wanted the doctors to try and save the twins by removing them from Lori's womb. Jeremy, pacing the hallway just beyond the operating room door, said he didn't know what to do.

In the lawsuit that followed, attorneys for Staples, St Thomas More and Catholic Health argued they couldn't be held liable for the deaths of the fetuses because, under the state's Wrongful Death Statute, fetuses are not people with legal rights.

After news outlets -- led by The Colorado Independent -- reported on the legal strategy this past January, stunned commentators and Catholics around the country called the legal argument an hypocrisy. They lamented the way it turned Church teaching on the sanctity of life upside down. They feared that decades of work promoting Church views in the public sphere had been undercut by a short-sighted business decision.

Krulewitch says it's more than that. She repeats a point she has tried for years to make to the courts and more recently to the media -- a point she says kept getting lost in coverage of the story. She says Colorado medical malpractice law governed by the Wrongful Death Statute cited in the case is unsettled. She says it has not been established that Colorado law grants no legal rights to fetuses. That's part of why she believes the case really matters.

In February, she wrote an email to that effect addressed to the HuffingtonPost, which had hosted a roundtable on the case (pdf).

"Catholic Health Initiatives advanced an argument that is an open question under Colorado law," she wrote. "No Colorado appellate decision has addressed the issue and the lower courts that have [weighed] the [matter] have issued conflicting opinions. The vast majority of states that have decided the issue on similar and sometimes identical statutes have overwhelmingly found that a viable fetus is a person for purposes of wrongful death liability. So anyone that suggests that Catholic Health Initiatives was simply following the law is wrong. Catholic Health advanced this argument to make new law, not to follow established law."

Krulewitch had offered an earlier explanation to Denver weekly Westword, saying that leaving viable fetuses out of the Wrongful Death Statute opens up a loophole that undercuts the spirit of the law.

"What we're saying is if you have a viable fetus -- and there's no question in this case that these babies were viable -- and a doctor negligently causes their death, that the surviving parents ought to be able to bring a lawsuit," she said. Otherwise, "the person who was negligent would basically get away with it."

In 2010, Fremont County District Court Judge David Thorson ruled in favor of Catholic Health, even while acknowledging the question on fetal rights remained open for other courts or the state legislature to answer. In 2012, a panel of three appellate judges effectively punted on the issue after attorneys for the defense argued the question in the case was really whether a c-section would have likely saved the twins. The Supreme Court has elected to leave the question on fetal rights and the Colorado Wrongful Death Statute on the table.

Colorado Church authorities, led by Archbishop Samuel Aquila, denounced the legal strategy used by Catholic Health and suggested they would work to make sure that in the future the statute covers fetuses.

"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," the Colorado bishops wrote in a January 24 release (pdf).

"Catholic Health Initiatives officials have assured us that they believed it was 'morally wrong' to make recourse to an unjust law... CHI joins us in our commitment to work for comprehensive change in Colorado's law, so that the unborn may enjoy the same legal protections as all other persons."

Catholic Health representatives said the organization joined with the bishops in "expressing solidarity for the Stodghill family" and offering to "stand with" them and "support them in their suffering."

Catholic Health Initiatives runs 78 hospitals in 17 states. It reports nearly $11 billion in annual revenues.

In a January interview with The Independent, Jeremy Stodghill said that if the Supreme Court rejected the case, it would at least feel like closure.

"Then that would be it. It would be over," he said.

Looking back at the case, Stodghill said he wished everyone involved had just been honest. He declined to say what he thought of the Catholic Health legal strategy because he thought that, if he did say, it would come out too profane to print. He said he wasn't angry, at least not in any obvious way. He wasn't raging around the house, throwing chairs or anything like that. He said he understood that money matters in the health industry, like it matters in every other industry.

"They gotta keep the lights on," he said. "None of what they do is free."

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