Saturday, January 26, 2013

Life Begins At Conception, Sometimes

She's right, you know.  Salon's Katie McDonough has an unusual- not weird, but nearly unique- take on an important story cross-posted this past week in the Colorado Independent and RH Reality Check.  John Tomasic wrote

Lori Stodghill was 31-years old, seven-months pregnant with twin boys and feeling sick when she arrived at St. Thomas More hospital in Cañon City on New Year’s Day 2006. She was vomiting and short of breath and she passed out as she was being wheeled into an examination room. Medical staff tried to resuscitate her but, as became clear only later, a main artery feeding her lungs was clogged and the clog led to a massive heart attack. Stodghill’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, who also happened to be the obstetrician on call for emergencies that night, never answered a page. His patient died at the hospital less than an hour after she arrived and her twins died in her womb.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Stodghill’s husband Jeremy, a prison guard, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of himself and the couple’s then-two-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Staples should have made it to the hospital, his lawyers argued, or at least instructed the frantic emergency room staff to perform a caesarian-section. The procedure likely would not have saved the mother, a testifying expert said, but it may have saved the twins.

The lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based nonprofit that runs St. Thomas More Hospital as well as roughly 170 other health facilities in 17 states. Last year, the hospital chain reported national assets of $15 billion. The organization’s mission, according to its promotional literature, is to “nurture the healing ministry of the Church” and to be guided by “fidelity to the Gospel.” Toward those ends, Catholic Health facilities seek to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules have stirred controversy for decades, mainly for forbidding non-natural birth control and abortions. “Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death,’” the directives state. “The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn.”

The directives can complicate business deals for Catholic Health, as they can for other Catholic health care providers, partly by spurring political resistance. In 2011, the Kentucky attorney general and governor nixed a plan in which Catholic Health sought to merge with and ultimately gain control of publicly funded hospitals in Louisville. The officials were reacting to citizen concerns that access to reproductive and end-of-life services would be curtailed. According to The Denver Post, similar fears slowed the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth’s plan over the last few years to buy out Exempla Lutheran Medical Center and Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in the Denver metro area.

But when it came to mounting a defense in the Stodghill case, Catholic Health’s lawyers effectively turned the Church directives on their head. Catholic organizations have for decades fought to change federal and state laws that fail to protect “unborn persons,” and Catholic Health’s lawyers in this case had the chance to set precedent bolstering anti-abortion legal arguments. Instead, they are arguing state law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds that those fetuses are not persons with legal rights.

As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, 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.”

McDonough realizes

The terrible mix of doctors and dogma becomes all too clear in cases like the death of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died in an Irish hospital — another institution governed by Catholic directives on reproductive care — after its staff denied her an abortion for a non-viable fetus. When claims of fetal personhood can outweigh claims of women’s personhood, we’ve got a serious problem on our hands.

And Catholic strings don’t just limit women’s access to contraception and safe abortion care. They also have major implications for end-of-life care, in-vetro fertilization, sterilization and countless other medical procedures that we just don’t want the Pope’s advice on.

Would it have been preferable for the hospital to comply with Stodghill’s lawsuit and concede the unborn fetuses were people? No, because it would have set a dangerous precedent. And instead of reading gloating blog headlines today, we would be be reading outraged ones.

Accordingly, she slams "the gradual takeover of public hospitals by Catholic-sponsored medical centers" as "a dangerous trend."  It appears to be yet another sphere in which functions performed by government employees have been increasingly privatized, public interest be damned.

McDonough argues convincingly that the gradual takeover of medical facilities by institutions affiliated by the Roman Catholic Church is "what we should be talking about instead of Catholic hypocrisy."  It is, though, a little like Jesus' admonition in Matthew 26:11a (ESV) "For you always have the poor with you."    (Note the tense: "always have" rather than "always will have.") Knowing that poor people, to some extent, always will exist does not relieve institutions from alleviating their suffering nor trying to reduce their numbers.

So, too, does the hypocrisy of the Church bear notice, though we might say:  concern for profits invariably trumps concern for the clientele in provision of services by private, secular organizations With that understanding, that the Church's concern for profits trumps dedication to the idea that life begins at conception should not be startling.  

Gloating may be counter-productive, but reasoned criticism of the Church's position is not.While Mr. Stodghill, who has lost in two lower courts, appeals to the Colorado Supreme Court, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan and Pueblo Bishop Fernando Isern jointly have said "no Catholic institution may legitimately work to undermine fundamental human dignity" and promise to conduct a "full review of this litigation and of the policies and practices... to ensure fidelity and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church."   Skeptical, the Daily Kos' Kaili Joy Gray blogs

Of course the bishops are going to do their very best to clean up the mess, which is why Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan and Pueblo Bishop Fernando Isern will be conducting their review of the case "to ensure fidelity and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church." (Catch that? The teachings of the Church. Not Jesus. The Church.)

And that- loyalty to an institution rather than to its founding principles- is an even greater problem than the reality, increasingly recognized, that yet another organization (as with most of us) is not immune to the temptation of maintaining its economic power.

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