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Elastic Doctrine: Catholic Hospital Says a Foetus Isn’t A Person

Last week, a story emerged out of the US which has made some people extremely confused.

In 2006, a woman was admitted to a hospital in Colorado after experiencing vomiting and shortness of breath. She was seven months pregnant with twins. At the hospital, operated by a company named Catholic Health Initiatives, nurses checked for foetal heartbeats, and finding none they decided against doing a perimortem Caesarean section, which can save the lives of both mothers and babies, because the babies were probably dead. In the end, the woman died, as did her unborn twins. Her husband has since filed a lawsuit against the hospital arguing that if the obstetrician had performed a caesarean, the twins might have been saved.

The lawyer defending the Catholic Health Initiative and the hospital has come up with a perhaps surprising line of argument. He has said that the case should be dismissed on the grounds that a foetus is not a person. “[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.”

It’s a legally sound argument. But the significance is that this is a Catholic institution arguing that a foetus is not a person. Catholic doctrine sanctions the belief that life begins at conception. Indeed, the Catholic Health Initiative writes just that on their website.

Interestingly, the same idea the Hospital is defending itself with  – a foetus is not a person – was one of the most controversial ideas presented at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas last year (watch the video here). Practical ethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva drew widespread condemnation and even death threats by suggesting that killing a newborn infant should be as ethically permissible as abortion, because a newborn is not a person – in the sense that they have no concept of their own identity (read a defence here). While the ideas are certainly controversial, it is interesting to see the Catholic Church making the same argument.

For more ideas about the influence of the Church in secular societies, check out our upcoming event Church & State, featuring AC Grayling and Sean Faircloth.