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Can Doctors Refuse to Treat Gay People Based on Their Religious Beliefs? Calif. Supreme Court to Decide

By L.K. Regan

First gay marriage, now this: California seems to be the center of all gay-rights news lately. The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case this week pitting the rights of gay patients to equal care against the rights of doctors to exercise their moral beliefs, the Associated Press reports. The case is brought by Guadalupe Benitez, a lesbian mother of three who was denied artificial insemination by a fertility clinic when its doctors discovered that she was gay. The clinic, North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, had been treating Benitez with fertility drugs for almost a year when the Christian doctors declined to inseminate her. Benitez sued in a San Diego court and won, only to see that ruling overturned by an appeals court.

California law prevents for-profit businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation; this law forms the basis of Benitez's suit. But the appeals court that last ruled on the case determined that the clinic had refused treatment based on Benitez's unmarried status, a justification that was still legal at the time of Benitez's treatment. Benitez's lawyers are appealing that decision based on recent judicial precedent. As Jennifer Pizer of Lambda Legal, Benitez's attorney, said back in 2006, "We're asking the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court's decision because it goes against the very issue the Court settled in 2004 when it ruled that Catholic Charities, a social services agency and not a church, may not violate civil rights laws no matter how earnestly they may wish to" (Source: Pink News)

At stake in the case is the question of the discretionary rights of doctors, and the role their consciences may play in determining treatment. As Robert Tyler, an attorney for the North Coast doctors who refused to treat Benitez, puts it, "Here, the doctors are being asked to create life. Why shouldn't they be allowed to let their faith be an important part of their decision-making as it relates to either choosing to perform a procedure or referring the person to another physician who is willing to perform the procedure?" North Coast did refer Benitez to a doctor willing to work with her, and offered to pay any additional costs. The fact that the procedure is elective rather than life-saving may also allow additional room for doctors' discretion.

Yet if a doctor's faith requires him or her to take up discriminatory practices, it may run afoul of the law. As Benitez's attorney, Jennifer Pizer of Lambda Legal, points out, doctors can legitimately object to procedures, and not offer them—but they must do so in general, not on a discriminatory basis. "If a doctor in good conscience can't provide good medical care, that doctor should not be in that field."

The California Supreme Court's verdict could, activists think, extend beyond the rights of gay men and lesbians who wish to have children through surrogacy or artificial insemination; it could also have large-scale implications for issues such as abortion and end-of-life decision-making.