Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., addresses a Tennessee Right to Life Rally on Jan. 19 in Nashville, Tenn. / John Partipilo, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Lawyers for a Catholic hospital in Colorado were "morally wrong" to claim that fetuses are not people, hospital officials said.
Jeremy Stodghill, whose 31-year-old wife, Lori, died in 2006 at St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City, Colo., raised the issue of whether a fetus is a person in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Lori Stodghill was seven months pregnant with twins at the time. The suit claims the hospital failed to perform an emergency cesarean section to save the fetuses.
Lawyers for the Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives, which owns St. Thomas More, cited Colorado's Wrongful Death Act in their defense.
That was a mistake, the hospital chain said Monday.
"That law does not consider fetuses to be persons, which directly contradicts the moral teachings of the church," the statement said.
The hospital's legal claims caused controversy when they became public last week. At the time Catholic leaders were preparing to take part in the annual March for Life against abortion in the nation's capital.
The Colorado case has national significance because Catholic dioceses in New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee are suing the federal government over a contraceptive mandate for employers included in the Affordable Care Act. Those Catholic groups say the mandate violates their beliefs about the sanctity of life.
Last week, hospital officials met with the three Catholic bishops of Colorado over the controversy.
After the meetings, hospital leaders said they would abide by Catholic teaching that life is sacred from the moment of conception.
"It is an unfortunate and regrettable point of fact that Colorado law, as it now stands, fails to adequately protect the rights of the unborn," the statement said.
Hospital leaders said they would no longer use rely on the legal defense that fetuses are not people under the law. They and the bishops said that staff at the hospital provided Lori Stodghill with exceptional care and were not negligent.
Two Colorado judges have ruled in the past that the hospital was not liable. The case is on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Last week Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said the hospital failed to live up to its pro-life principles.
"There's a difference between being legal and being right," Land said. "Either a fetus is a person or it's not."
Spurred on by advancing medical technology that makes fetuses more viable, states like Colorado have tried to expand some rights to fetuses.
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.
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.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Bob Smietana also writes for The Tennessean in Nashville.
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