This story is making the rounds of the leftosphere:
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.
St. Thomas More is a Catholic hospital and member of Catholic Health Initiatives, which is the lead defendant in the wrongful-death suit. The framing of the story is about CHI’s defense:
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.
That’s where all the attention is going on this story: it’s so hypocritical of CHI to claim “fetuses are not persons” when the Church’s usual position is to twist women’s health into pretzel shapes in honor of their embryos. In an abstract moral sense, this is a valid point and it’s worthy of discussion, but in a legal sense, this is hardly news. When you’re getting sued for a large amount of money, your defense has nothing to do with your own principles and everything to do with how the fact pattern relates to the law. As far as the law is concerned, CHI’s lawyers are simply doing their jobs. It is not the legal defense team’s responsibility to uphold the Catholic Church’s stance on unborn life. We could say that it’s hypocritical of CHI to let their defense team make the argument that fetuses are not persons, but this is the sort of thing that goes on in lawsuits. They do what it takes to win.
What I think is much more significant to the case, and in much more pressing need of discussion, is the fact that the hospital had to page an obstetrician and wait for him to arrive at the hospital when a pregnant woman was having a lethal health crisis. If Dr. Staples had come to the hospital quick as he could, then, sure, they might have saved Lori Stodghill and/or her twins. However, if there had been an OB and anesthesiologist already on-deck, they might have also saved Lori and/or her 7-months-gestation twin boys. If we’re going to make this case a matter of fetus-worshipping hypocrisy, we should be asking why St. Thomas More Hospital didn’t step up their game by having a surgical team available on the OB floor at all times. Surely, the cost of having those professionals on hand would be a bargain if it sent a few more healthy babies home with their parents.
Once we get started down that road, we see that St. Thomas More is far from alone in making pregnant women with emergent crises wait for a doctor to arrive from home. ACOG’s position on VBAC, for example, recommends (but does not require) that expectant parents and their providers seek hospitals with immediately available staff to perform an emergency c-section if they’re pursuing a TOLAC (Trial of Labor After Cesarean). The fact that many hospitals do not have that immediately available staff means that many post-cesarean mothers are unable to find care for vaginal births in later pregnancies. Even putting aside the question of birthing options for healthy mothers, the fact remains that many hospitals do not have surgical staff available at all times to handle obstetrical emergencies. Surely, a 7-months-pregnant woman having a heart attack qualifies as an emergency that warrants having a surgical team immediately available.
This, in my opinion, is a much more significant issue than the way CHI is handling a lawsuit. The larger issue is that our healthcare system is inconsistent about handling obstetrical emergencies. If a hospital does not have a surgical team immediately available at all hours, that hospital does not provide emergency obstetrical care. If there are no hospitals in a given area that meet ACOG’s recommendation of “surgical staff immediately available in the maternity ward at all times,” then the childbearing women of that area do not have access to emergency obstetrical care. Life-threatening emergencies happen to pregnant women at all hours of the day and night.