Hearing on lesbian health care denial

May 28, 2008 7:17:41 PM PDT
Two weeks after allowing gay marriage the California Supreme Court is dealing with another issue involving same sex couples. Can a doctor withhold medical care because of religious beliefs?

Guadalupe Benitez's Southern California fertility doctor refused to do an artificial insemination because Benitez is a lesbian, and the doctor said that it conflicted with her Christian religious beliefs.

Now, the State Supreme Court is set to decide if the doctor broke the law, or if she's protected under religious freedom rights.

"The question is, is whether you can offer a given service and offer that service, and yet say, 'but you, oh, I'm not offering it to you," says Justice Carol Corrigan of the State Supreme Court.

Benitez's lawyers say the doctor did violate the state's anti-discrimination law governing businesses.

"In this case, we're just asking the court to apply existing rules, and again to reject the idea that civil rights laws can be avoided based on religious belief," says Benitez's attorney Jennifer Pizer.

"It doesn't need to be one side versus the other. We can have a win-win situation here," says the doctor's attorney Kenneth Pedroza.

The doctor's lawyers argued a compromise should be struck.

"When a physician feels in good conscience they can't provide care, that physician should go out and help the patient get the care they need," says Pedroza.

But Benitez's lawyers say that it would be illegal if the care were denied because of the patient's race or ethnicity, and being denied on the basis of sexual orientation is no different.

"California doesn't license doctors to be a Whites only doctor or a heterosexual only doctor or a Jew only doctor. It's a license to be a doctor," says Pizer.

"A rule of accommodation would allow individual physicians in a group to do it and others not to and to only refuse when it's a substantial burden to their religious belief," says Pedroza.

Benitez did eventually conceive through in-vitro fertilization with the help of another doctor. Justice Kathryn Werdeger questioned if ultimately, there really was any harm done to Benitez.

"It does a great deal of damage to a person when being discriminated like that, being told you're not worthy of becoming a mother or having a child or having a family, which ultimately the only thing I wanted to do was to be a family and have children and just be a great mom," says Benitez.

The court has 90 days to decide, but that's far from the end of the story. Either way, the case will then go back to the San Diego area trial court. The Supreme Court's decision will determine if the doctor and her practice can use the religious rights argument as a defense.