Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Church, Abortion and A Wrongful Death Lawsuit against a Catholic Hospital

Every now and then (but more and more) you find a news story that forces your brain to do double back flips. Here's one I found, courtesy of Digital Journal:
A Catholic hospital embroiled in a lawsuit involving the death of twin fetuses is arguing that they should not be held responsible for the death of the unborn children because "a fetus is not a person".
(Click on the headline above to read the complete article. It's worth your time.) 

That such a thing can happen in the first place in any hospital in this day and age is, in itself, shocking and it's tragic. To lose your wife and your unborn twins in one moment? It's hard to imagine that kind of pain. The Denver Post gives us more details:
Jeremy Stodghill filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in District Court in Fremont County after his 31-year-old wife, Lori, seven months pregnant with twin boys, died of a blockage of the main artery of the lung at St. Thomas More Hospital in CaƱon City on New Year's Day 2006.
Stodghill's lawyer argued that her obstetrician, Pelham Staples, never made it to the hospital — even though on call for emergencies — and there was no attempt by any medical personnel to save the Stodghills' sons by cesarian section. The unborn children died in the womb.
However, listen to the defense from the lawyer for the lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), operator of St. Thomas More hospital.The article quotes Jason Langley, attorney for CHI:
"[The court] should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term ‘person,’ as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive. Colorado state courts define ‘person’ under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses."
In fact, from a legal point of view, Langely was quite right. In cases of wrongful death,, the courts, as a rule, do not award special rights to the unborn. (For the complicated reasons for this policy, follow the link.) One source observes
Opponents of the fetal wrongful death action add the argument that wrongful death statutes allow recovery only for the death of a "person," and that a fetus is not a person."
Nevertheless in the criminal courts, Colorado (as well as 38 other states) do have increased the criminal penalties for crimes involving pregnant women. They are called "fetal homicide laws." So the courts do give special limited considerations to death of the unborn fetuses. Apparently just not for wrongful death cases. 

In any case, from a moral and ethical view, I wonder how in the name of God the lawyer persuaded his defendants that his approach was suitable? 
That must have been some hard sell. 


Nun Protest Abortion CatholicWhat the Church Has to Say
As most of us are aware, because the Roman Catholic Church feels that since life begins at conception, all abortions, done for whatever reason, and regardless of the stage of the pregnancy, is a transgression against God and his Church. 

Jesus didn't have anything to say specifically about the rights of unborn babies. Many of the early Church fathers were decidedly against it. For example:

The Epistle of Barnabas (not considered part of the Gospels) in Chapter 19, verse 5, states:
You shall not kill the fetus either by abortion or the newborn.
However, another important figure in the Church,  St. Augustine  (354-450) refused to consider  any abortion within 80 days after conception to be murder because the fetus, he had decided, didn't have a soul  Therefore abortion in this case was permitted and exempted from any condemnation or punishment.
That Augustinian view was always controversial. Eventually, In 1588, Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) closed the 80-day window of opportunity for abortions but then his successor,  Pope Gregory XIV (1535-1591) opened it back up again. With abortion being the only sure form of contraception, at that time, the practice must have been widespread and enforcement of an absolute anti-abortion stand was considered impractical. 

Finally, in 1869, Pope Pius IX made the Roman Catholic stand on abortion official. He consider the banning of all abortions to be "prudent" since nobody could ascertain when the fetus had a soul. (This was, incidentally, about the same time that the doctrine of papal infallibility- that popes were incapable of error- became official dogma of the Church. So I guess he could have arbitrarily declared the soul entry moment and nobody could have disputed it.)

Since that time, the Church's view has become more and more absolute. According to Church of today, from the moment of conception, the developing fetus has a soul and so should have the rights of a person. For that reason, all abortions, for any reason, at any stage in the pregnancy, is considered murder.  So much for the evolution of the Church's position on abortion.

Therefore, for a lawyer to use that particular defense- that unborn baby have no legal protections- would seem  practically impossible to reconcile with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Take a look at this quote, if you don't believe me.

According to the authoritative book, Catechism of the Catholic Church,
"human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life."
And again:
As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."
That definitive statement leaves very little wiggle room for attorneys who like to wiggle up a storm if it means winning a case. 
*    *    *    *
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II made the view of the Catholic Church and all Catholic institutions clear:
"Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo... Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action" 
So there's really no other way of looking at it. The hospital administrators, who apparently approved of this line of defense, have managed to escape punishment of the justice by betraying their own religious principles.  
When the Judgement Day arrived, swayed by their attorneys, they threw out all those papal decrees about and stern prohibitions, to save their own skins. 

Ramifications
When you think about the implications of this case, it's also surprising that all those placard-carrying pro-life groups are not all over this case. After all, aren't they supposed to be the champions of the unborn? The only reason that they aren't must be because it is a Catholic hospital.
One other point worth mentioning. Ironically, if the Catholic hospital's attorney succeeds in this case, the courts will send a strong signal that, despite what the Catholic regularly declares, abortion is not murder. Not according to this defense. 

Nobody at the hospital seems to have thought of that fine point. Somebody must have whispered in the ears of the members of the Church because, according to the Denver Post,  Colorado's three Catholic bishops to review of the lawsuit and the defense.
That's a really good idea. 
If the decision by the lower courts is upheld, then it sets a precedent against making abortion illegal for any Supreme Court decision. The Colorado courts would have declared in this wrongful death cases that an unborn child- even a viable fetus- does not have the same constitutional rights as a baby. 
For pro-life groups and the Catholic Church it would a case of winning the battle and losing the war. 

Somebody should have told the hospital directors that they could have settled out of court.
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