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On Flip-Flopping Catholic Hospitals

Trent Horn

A Catholic hospital in Colorado has been under criticism from just about everyone in the past few weeks for its unusual legal maneuver in a wrongful death lawsuit.  An article on CNN recounts the gist of the story this way:


The flip-flop concerns the case of Lori Stodghill. She was 28 weeks pregnant with twins when she went to the emergency room of St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City, Colorado, vomiting and short of breath. She went into cardiac arrest in the lobby and died. That was New Year’s Day 2006. Her husband, Jeremy Stodghill, sued the hospital and its owner, Catholic Health Initiatives, for the wrongful deaths of his wife and their unborn sons. Given the Catholic Church’s belief that life begins at conception, defense attorneys for the hospital and doctors then entered an unusual argument. They said that under state law, an embryo is not person until it is born alive.

Last week St. Thomas More hospital admitted they were “morally wrong” for allowing their lawyers to use such a defense. Perhaps they were moved by the intercession of the real St. Thomas More, whose life is an amazing example of how a lawyer must always stand up for truth even if the consequences are fatal.

The Colorado bishops issued a statement which read in part, “We join CHI in affirming the fundamental truth that human life, human dignity, and human rights begin at conception. No law can ever mitigate God-given human rights.”

Now, I understand why pro-life people are upset with the hospital.  It just seems sleazy to say you are a Catholic institution and claim that you believe life begins at conception but then do an about-face and deny that truth in court in order to avoid having to pay out a settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit. 

The noble and moral thing to do, as the hospital now recognizes, would be to say that while the law does not recognize that the unborn child is a human being with rights and dignity, the law is simply mistaken on that point. Consequently, the hospital should proceed with a legal defense that justifies its actions concerning three persons, not one.

The Church’s 1974 declaration on procured abortion summarizes the point well. It says, “The tradition of the Church has always held that human life must be protected and favored from the beginning, just as at the various stages of its development.” This also includes favoring unborn human life that has died and giving it the respect and recognition we would give to any deceased born human being.

However, I’m not sure why pro-choice advocates are upset with the hospital.  The hospital followed the law perfectly and treats the unborn as having the exact value our country says they have: none.  Pro-choice commenters seem to be saying things like, “Ha, they believe life begins at conception but then when there are problems they quickly abandon that belief.”

Really? You don’t like it when Catholics say they personally believe life begins at conception but they don’t publicly act like what they believe is really true. Perhaps you need to watch this video clip of Vice President Joe Biden making that exact same argument in his debate with Paul Ryan in defense of his pro-choice views. Do you think he is being hypocritical?

My challenge to pro-choice critics regarding this case is this: If you think the Church should stand up for its personal belief that unborn human life deserves legal protection in a wrongful death lawsuit, then do you think the Church should always stand up for that belief even when civil and criminal law says otherwise?

By that logic Catholic hospitals should not obey the HHS mandate, because some of the so-called contraceptive drugs it must provide, such as “ella” (which can be taken up to five days after intercourse in order to prevent pregnancy) are known to cause the death of human embryos. The FDA label for the emergency contraceptive ELLA clearly admits to ELLA’s abortifacient potential and states that:

Use of ella is contraindicated during an existing or suspected pregnancy. Embryofetal loss was noted in all pregnant rats and in half of the pregnant rabbits following 12 and 13 days of dosing.

Rather than flat out deny the drug’s potential to kill unborn human life, Dr. David Archer, who served as an expert advisor for ella’s manufacturer, said that at the point ella would terminate a human embryo it is just a “microscopic ball of cells . . . You won’t see a head or fingers or any fetal organs.” Or basically, “Who cares if it kills tiny human embryos?”

To pro-choice critics who are upset that Catholic hospitals aren’t more consistent and should not violate their own belief about the dignity of unborn children, I say, “I completely agree.”  All that needs to happen now is for Catholic institutions to courageously face not just losses in private lawsuits but penalties from a federal government intent on denying them their religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

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