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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)

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This is disputed by Kenneth Pedroza, the attorney for the two doctors. He said they clearly informed Benítez that their religious beliefs applied to unmarried women and treated her no differently than any other single woman seeking treatment at the clinic.

"Freedom of religion absolutely protects all of their conduct in this case," he said. "There are two areas in medical care where freedom of religion is invoked most clearly: in the creation of life and the termination of life." And just as patients have rights, he said, so too do doctors.

Jennifer C. Pizer, a lawyer with the gay rights group Lambda Legal who is representing Benítez, said that while the law protects doctors who refuse certain treatments on religious grounds, it does not allow them to do so on a discriminatory or selective basis. In other words, when doctors refuse a treatment, their refusal must apply to all patients -- not to a group, such as unmarried women or lesbians.

"All you have to do is imagine, for a moment, a doctor agreeing to an abortion for women of color but saying, 'I will not' for white women. Or a Jewish doctor saying, 'I will do an abortion for Muslim women, but not Jewish women.' Or vice versa," Pizer said. "Just imagining those possibilities shows how deeply problematic such a notion would be."

A trial court sided with Benítez in 2004, ruling that doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California's anti-discrimination laws, regardless of religion. An appeals court overturned that decision one year later, finding that the previous ruling had denied the doctors' religious rights.

Benítez, now 36, has since given birth to a son and twin girls. But the court's ruling remains important to her, she said, because of what it may mean for other couples trying to conceive or simply seeking medical care.

"We decided we need to be treated like everybody else," she said. "If they can prohibit doctors in general from discrimination, for me, that's a win."


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