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Colorado doctor fights firing by Catholic hospital over handling of a terminally ill patient

Catholic health care nonprofit Centura Health fired Dr. Barbara Morris in 2019 after she advocated for a terminally ill patient who sought to end his life.

DENVER (CN) — A Colorado doctor asked the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday to revive her lawsuit against the Catholic hospital that claimed she violated its ethics directive and fired her for helping a terminally ill patient under the End-of-Life Options Act.

Dr. Barbara Morris, a specialist in geriatric medicine, originally filed a complaint seeking declaratory relief in August 2019 after a terminally patient approached her to discuss aid in dying options.

The Colorado End-of-Life Options Act was passed by 65% of voters in 2016 and allows terminally ill patients to seek help from a doctor to end their lives. The law allows medical facilities to opt out if they do not wish to allow patients to end their life on the premises.

Until his diagnosis of stage IV adenocarcinoma at 64, Cornelius Mahoney worked at Welby Gardens in Golden, Colorado. where he “enjoyed working with plants and flowers.”

Adenocarcinoma forms in the glands lining organs causing Mahoney to suffer tumors in his liver, his chest and the place where his stomach met his esophagus, making it difficult to eat.

Since witnessing the death of his own mother, Mahoney had said he was “disturbed by how difficult and prolonged the dying experience can be.”

Mahoney’s hospital, St. Anthony’s, and parent company Centura, not only opted out of providing aid in dying treatment, the Catholic health care nonprofit also required employees to follow a strict set of moral directives prohibiting physicians from helping a patient to end their life.

“Suicide and euthanasia are never morally acceptable options,” Centura policy states. “Euthanasia is an action or omission that of itself or by intention causes death in order to alleviate suffering. Catholic health care institutions may never condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way.”

Centura fired Morris five days after she filed the civil suit, claiming she admitted to breaching her contact. Morris submitted an amended complaint claiming she was fired for filing the lawsuit.  

On Oct. 12, 2021, 18th Judicial District Judge Peter Frederick Michaelson granted summary judgment to the health care company. Morris appealed.

Centura also filed an appeal, contesting a court order prohibiting it from using the term "assisted suicide," a claim it maintained weakened its ability to explain its opposition to the practice.

“If Dr. Morris violated Centura’s policy that would probably constitute a reason to fire her, but the question remains if she really did,” Morris' attorney Chip Schoneberger argued on the third floor of the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver on Tuesday.

“The statute doesn’t contemplate the act of accidently qualifying a patient, it is a purposeful endeavor," Schoneberger said. "You can do a lot of things under the act: you can talk to patients about the act and you can transfer patients to a hospital that provides those services, but Centura’s policy says you cannot engage in the stage of qualifying a patient.”

Representing Centura, attorney Ian Speir maintained Morris was rightfully fired for violating the directives.

“The filing of the lawsuit, the submission of the affidavit are just how Centura learned she was violating the policy,” Speir argued.

Court of Appeals Judge Matthew Grove questioned whether summary judgment had been issued in a light most favorable to Morris. Judge JoAnn Vogt appeared to agree.

“I was just looking at the policy that allows a physician to engage with a patient to discuss their initial options,” Vogt said. “ Couldn’t a juror make the determination that she was doing that?”

Spier maintained that Morris had not just discussed options with Mahoney but qualified him under the law.

Judge W. Eric Kuhn rounded out the panel. Judge Grove did not indicate how the panel would decide the case but promised a written opinion would be issued in due course.

Mahoney died at his home in November 2019.

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