Catholic hospital’s malpractice defense: fetuses aren’t people

Hypocrisy at its finest.

In 2006, a 31-year old woman 7 mo. pregnant with twins came to the hospital with a “clogged” pulmonary artery, which led to a heart attack. The OB/GYN on call (coincidentally her obstetrician) never answered his page. She died within an hour and her twins died, too. Her husband sued for wrongful-death of the twins. Catholic Health Initiatives, which runs that hospital, plus ~170 other health facilities in 17 states and has assets of $15 billion, has won in the District Court and the CO Court of Appeals by arguing that legally ‘person’ only encompasses those born alive, so the death of twin fetuses cannot be part of a wrongful death claim. The state Supreme Court will decide in the next few weeks whether to take the case or not.

I’m strongly pro-choice, so I understand why many people might be nervous about a ruling in favor of the plaintiff. Classifying this woman’s twin fetuses as “persons” only opens the door for further restrictions on abortion. Perhaps a good standard for determining where to draw the line in cases of fetal death would be based in large part on the pregnant woman’s intentions. This is still a far from perfect standard and it wouldn’t be much help if a woman’s intentions aren’t clear or if she hasn’t made up her mind. However, it does seem to be a way of respecting the fact causing the death of a woman’s fetus is more harmful to her if she wants to continue with her pregnancy than if she does not.

In this case, I buy the plaintiff’s (her husband) argument that a decision in favor of the defendant could set precedent that would relieve “doctors of responsibility to patients whose viable fetuses are at risk.” I also understand that the defendant, Catholic Health Initiatives, is making the strongest case it can based on existing law. That said, it seems disingenuous for an organization whose care is “rooted in a commitment to respect the sacredness of every human life from the moment of conception to death” to use this defense–especially when it also claims moral leadership, and names “moral wholeness, soundness, fidelity, trust, truthfulness in all we do” as core values.

Catholic health organizations provide a tremendous amount of care around the country and around the world, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for Bishops, instead of medical doctors, to set standards of healthcare. I hope that it doesn’t take another senseless death like that of Savita Halappanavar to ensure that all emergency departments in the U.S.* provide the full range of  healthcare to their patients. The Catholic Church’s willingness to claim that fetuses are “unborn children” when a woman wants to have an abortion but that they aren’t “persons” when defending themselves in a law suit only highlights the fact that the Church’s stances on birth control and abortion are really just about controlling women and their reproduction.

 

*I understand that a case like Savita Halappanavar’s would be less likely to happen here than in Ireland, where abortion is illegal, because in the U.S., she could be transported to another hospital. However, such a transport takes up valuable time that could be the difference between life and death.

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