SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Do religious beliefs give doctors the right to withhold medical treatment from lesbians and gay men?
That's the question the California Supreme Court is scheduled to take up this week in a discrimination lawsuit brought by a lesbian who was denied artificial insemination at the only local obstetrics and gynecology office covered by her insurance.
Guadalupe Benitez, of Oceanside, alleges that after treating her with fertility drugs for nearly a year the staff of the private North Coast Women's Care Medical Group refused to inseminate her eight years ago because of her sexual orientation.
The case is being closely watched by civil rights and physician groups who think it could have consequences for other medical procedures, including abortion and end-of-life decisions.
"There is confusion among many health care providers who believe doctors have the freedom to pick and choose their patients," said Jennifer Pizer, an attorney with the gay rights legal group Lambda Legal who represents Benitez. "But doctors' ethics may not be exercised in a discriminatory way."
Benitez, now the mother of a 6-year-old boy and 2-year-old twin girls, sued Vista-based North Coast under a state law that prohibits for-profit businesses from arbitrarily discriminating against clients based on characteristics such as race, age and sexual orientation.
A San Diego County trial judge sided with her, but a midlevel appeals court reversed, ruling that the lower court needed to explore the disputed facts of the case before deciding whether the doctors' religious views were a viable defense.
The appeals court noted that at the time Benitez sought treatment, California civil rights law still allowed businesses to restrict their clientele based on a customer's marital status and Benitez's doctors claimed the main reason they would not treat her was because she was unmarried.
Peter Ferrara, general counsel for the Virginia-based American Civil Rights Union, said regardless of what the doctor's reasons were for referring her to another fertility specialist, a ruling in Benitez' favor would set a dangerous precedent.
"If you have a genuine moral issue raised, as in this case, you have to recognize the rights of both parties," said Ferrara, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the doctors.
Requiring them to act in violation of their beliefs "is a discriminatory resolution, and it discriminates against Christians," he said.
Along with the American Civil Rights Union, the Islamic Medical Association of North America, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, the California Catholic Conference, the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists, Americans
United for Life and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church State Council
submitted briefs backing the North Coast practice.
The California Medical Association initially sided with the doctors as well, but reversed its position after coming under fire from gay rights groups. The association ended up joining an amicus brief submitted by health care provider Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. The American Civil Liberties Union, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, the National Health Law Program and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association also filed papers backing Benitez.
Benitez, 36, said she and her partner decided to pursue the case because they wanted to prevent other couples from suffering the disappointment and humiliation they did.
"Even now I still have reservations when I go to a new doctor," she said. "The first question we ask each other is, 'Do you think they will have an issue and not take into consideration at all that we are a normal family like anyone?"'
Pizer says the fear that a victory for Benitez would require doctors to perform abortions and nurses who oppose assisted suicide to take an ailing patient off life support is alarmist. The point is that while doctors can opt out of performing certain procedures on religious grounds, they cannot exclude medically eligible patients from the services they do provide, she said.
California law allows pharmacists to refuse to dispense "morning after" pills to women who have had unprotected sex as long as another pharmacist is available to fill the prescription. In the case of North Coast, the staff citing religious reasons for refusing to inseminate Benitez would be like a pharmacist who opposes sex outside marriage selling birth control pills to only married women, according to Pizer.
"If a doctor in good conscience can't provide good medical care, that doctor should not be in that field," she said. "If a person isn't willing to provide the care the person needs, they shouldn't be wearing the lab coat."
The case is North Coast Women's Care Medical Group v. Benitez,
Case No. S142892.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)