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 an avalanche of criticism -- because the legal argument seemed to plainly clash with the church's centuries-old stance that life begins at conception.
But it is also now fueling an already raging debate in Colorado and beyond about whether fetuses should have legal rights and, if so, what kind.
On Monday, the hospital and the state's bishops released a statement acknowledging it was "morally wrong" to make the legal argument.
News of the wrongful death lawsuit came as Colorado lawmakers weigh how far they should go in penalizing acts that harm a fetus, and some worry that the case could diminish the Catholic Church's credibility in advocating more rights for the unborn.
Miguel De La Torre, a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, noted that the church often argues for laws recognizing a fetus as a human being.
"If that legislation was to come up again, how could the Catholic Church argue we should protect the rights of a fetus?" he said.
Indeed, last week Colorado's bishops met with executives at Catholic Healthcare Initiatives, a branch of the church that operates the hospital at the center of the case, to review how the lawsuit was handled. 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."
Spurred on by advancing medical technology that makes fetuses more viable and more visible, states have been expanding some rights to fetuses, sometimes in conjunction with anti-abortion groups and the Catholic Church.
State laws vary widely. It's difficult to quantify how many states allow wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of unborn children because each state has different case law and judicial interpretation. A report from the anti-abortion Americans United for Life estimates that 38 permit such lawsuits.
According to The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health issues, 37 states allow some form of prosecution for killing a fetus. A federal law also makes it a crime to harm a fetus while committing other federal crimes.
The debate over such measures 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 indeed 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, on New Year's Day 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 Stodghill collapsed and went into cardiac arrest.
Doctors and nurses tried to revive her, but she was declared dead from a pulmonary embolism. No one tried to remove the fetuses via an emergency cesarean section, and they perished, too, court papers said.
Jeremy Stodghill sued the hospital, some doctors and Catholic Healthcare Initiatives, 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 also argued that "under Colorado law, a fetus is not a `person,' and Plaintiff's claims for wrongful death must therefore be dismissed."
The trial 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 on other grounds. Stodghill's attorneys are now asking the state Supreme Court to hear the case.
The arguments were first reported on Jan. 23 by The Colorado Independent and Westword and set off a firestorm because of Catholic health groups' past stances on such issues. The trade group representing Catholic Hospitals opposed a provision of the federal health care law mandating that birth control be covered by insurance.
In their Monday statement, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan and Pueblo Bishop Fernando Isern said: "Catholic healthcare institutions are, and should, be held to the high standard of Jesus Christ himself."
They and CHI pledged not to argue against fetal personhood further in the case. They also said they and CHI sympathize with the Stodghill family.
Attorney Timms Fowler, who wrote a brief on behalf of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association in the case, doesn't believe that allowing lawsuits over wrongfully killed fetuses leads to giving them the same rights as human beings. He said there is a difference between "the duty owed by a stranger to the mother and the unborn child" and the mother's own decisions about the fetus' future.
"To die by the wrongful conduct of a stranger, you don't have to be a walking, talking, full person," Timms said, stressing he was speaking for himself and not the association.
Last Monday, 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 movie theater shooting. One victim was so severely wounded during the July massacre that she miscarried, but 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.