Calif. Court Considers Medical Rights

Plaintiff Guadalupe Benítez, left, says two doctors refused her a fertility treatment because she is a lesbian.
Plaintiff Guadalupe Benítez, left, says two doctors refused her a fertility treatment because she is a lesbian. (By Eduardo Contreras -- San Diego Union-tribune)
By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- On the heels of its ruling on same-sex marriage, California's highest court will decide another potentially landmark civil rights case: whether doctors can refuse to treat certain patients for religious reasons.

The case reaches back nearly 10 years, to when Guadalupe "Lupita" Benítez of Oceanside was trying to conceive. Benítez, who is gay, says doctors violated her civil rights because they refused her a fertility treatment, saying it was against their religion to perform insemination on a lesbian.

The two doctors and their employer, North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, say they denied Benítez treatment because it is against their Christian beliefs to perform insemination on unwed women, whether heterosexual or lesbian. Their refusal, they argue, is protected by their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Unlike instances in which doctors refuse to perform abortions, this case is unusual in that doctors are seemingly denying services to a select group of patients, said Joan Hollinger, a professor of family law at the University of California at Berkeley. And it is unclear whether the Constitution's religious freedom clause protects such selectiveness.

Either way, the California Supreme Court's ruling could have far-reaching consequences for doctors and businesses, and for unwed women, particularly lesbians, trying to conceive.

"The case raises a whole series of questions about the basis for which people can be denied medical treatment, particularly the extent to which gays or lesbians could be denied access to reproductive technology," Hollinger said.

According to the lawsuit, Benítez sought fertility treatment in 1999 after two years of trying to conceive using an at-home insemination kit. Her physician referred her to North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, a clinic with an exclusive contract with her medical insurance plan.

When Benítez met with doctor Christine Brody for her first appointment, she told Brody that she is a lesbian. Brody replied that, should her treatment require intrauterine insemination, she could not perform it for religious reasons.

The two dispute exactly what Brody said it was that violated her beliefs. Benítez claims Brody said it was her sexual orientation; Brody claims she said it was Benítez's marital status.

Still, Benítez began treatment, according to court documents, with the understanding -- from Brody -- that a different doctor would perform the procedure, if needed. Eventually, Benítez was referred by another North Coast doctor, Douglas Fenton, to a physician outside the medical group.

A lawyer for Brody and Fenton says the referral was prompted by a mix-up in Benítez's chart, which indicated that she wanted a particular procedure requiring live, not frozen, sperm. Had it not been for the miscommunication, staff doctors could have performed Benítez's procedure, the lawyer said.

Benítez, however, says she was referred elsewhere because of her sexual orientation. She says a receptionist with the medical group told her that Brody and her staff were not comfortable with her, and that she would not be treated fairly at North Coast or receive timely care, all because of her sexual orientation.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company