WASHINGTON The California Supreme Court dealt a blow to religious freedom Aug. 18, critics said, by ruling a fertility doctor cannot refuse to provide a treatment based on a patient's homosexuality.
The unanimous decision which rose from a fertility case involving a lesbian couple has the potential to increase the shortage of healthcare professionals and to threaten the First Amendment rights of workers in other vocational fields, foes of the opinion said.
California's high court ruled doctors at a Vista, Calif., clinic violated a state law that bars discrimination based on "sexual orientation" by refusing to inseminate a lesbian who desired to have a baby. The patient, Guadalupe Benitez, was referred to a physician in another group, and she eventually became pregnant and gave birth as a result of in vitro fertilization.
The decision came only three months after the same court legalized "gay marriage."
David Stevens, chief executive officer of the Christian Medical Association, said in a statement the case "was never about discrimination against patients on the basis of sexual choices; it was about discrimination against healthcare professionals on the basis of their sincerely held ethical standards. The physicians in this case had determined to only provide in vitro fertilization to married patients. That's hardly a novel or extreme ethical position.
"This decision reaches beyond the medical profession," Stevens said in a written statement. "Taking away the First Amendment rights of healthcare professionals puts at risk the rights of every working American."
Benitez and her same-sex partner, Joanne Clark, met with Christine Brody, an obstetrician/gynecologist at North Coast Women's Care Medical Group in 1999. Benitez told Brody she was a lesbian. Brody told Benitez that because of religious reasons she would not perform a fertility treatment known as intrauterine insemination (IUI) if it became necessary. Brody said her objection was based on Benitez being single, while Benitez contended the doctor objected because she was a lesbian.
Brody provided various fertility treatments for Benitez. When those treatments did not succeed, Benitez decided, with Brody's "advice and consent," to try IUI, which involves a doctor inserting sperm into a patient's uterus with a catheter. Brody and another North Coast doctor declined to do the procedure, and she was referred to an outside physician. That doctor tried IUI, but it was unsuccessful. In 2001, however, he succeeded with in vitro fertilization, which consists of uniting of an egg and a sperm in a laboratory dish before transfer of the embryo to the patient's uterus.
Benitez filed suit against the North Coast doctors, and Brody and her colleague argued that their First Amendment rights of free exercise of religion and free speech were violated. Benitez won at the trial court level, but the appeals court overturned the decision.
The California Supreme Court, however, ruled that the burden on the doctors' religious beliefs "is insufficient to allow them to engage in such discrimination" against a lesbian patient. The state's antidiscrimination law advances "California's compelling interest in ensuring full and equal access to medical treatment irrespective of sexual orientation," Associate Justice Joyce Kennard wrote.
The doctors could refuse to perform IUI on all patients in order to avoid a clash between their religious beliefs and the antidiscrimination law, Kennard said.
The opinion "will deny physicians and other professionals the ability to freely exercise their religious convictions," said Denise Burke, vice president of American United for Life, in a written release. "By forcing healthcare professional to choose between conscience and career, we will lose doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who are already in short supply."
The case is North Coast Women's Care Medical Group v. Superior Court.