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Church hospital focus of fetus debate

DENVER — It was a startling assertion that seemed an about-face from church doctrine: A Catholic hospital arguing in a Colorado court that twin fetuses that died in its care were not, under state law, human beings.

When the two-year-old court filing surfaced last month, it triggered an avalanche of criticism, because the legal argument seemed to clash with the church’s centuries-old stance that life begins at conception. But it is now fueling a raging debate in Colorado and beyond about whether fetuses should have legal rights and, if so, what kind.

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On Monday, the hospital and the state’s bishops released a statement acknowledging it was ‘‘morally wrong’’ to make the legal argument.

News of the wrongful death lawsuit came as Colorado lawmakers weigh how far they should go in penalizing acts that harm a fetus, and some worry that the case could diminish the Catholic Church’s credibility in advocating more rights for the unborn.

Last week Colorado’s bishops met with executives at Catholic Healthcare Initiatives, a branch of the church that operates the hospital at the center of the case, to review how the lawsuit was handled. The two released separate statements Monday saying CHI executives had been unaware of the legal arguments and pledging to ‘‘work for comprehensive change in Colorado’s law, so that the unborn may enjoy the same legal protections as other persons.’’

According to The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health issues, 37 states allow some form of prosecution for killing a fetus.

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