Court: Docs can't withhold care to gays

August 18, 2008 6:17:03 PM PDT
California's highest court rules unanimously that doctors cannot use their religious beliefs to deny treatment to gays and lesbians. The decision is the result of a San Diego case involving a lesbian woman and a fertility treatment clinic.

The decision strengthens an existing state law that prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers because of their sexual orientation, just like businesses are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, sex or religion. The court rejected the doctor's claim that if they were forced to do the procedure for the lesbian patient, their freedom of speech and religion would be violated.

Guadalupe Benitez talked to reporters outside a San Diego courthouse with her partner Joanne Clark and their son, Gabriel.

"I'm just still trying to digest the news. I'm Just very happy and excited," says Benitez.

The State Supreme Court ruled fertility doctors could not deny treatment to Benitez because of the doctors' religious beliefs.

"They told me at the first visit, that the doctor wouldn't be able to do the procedure with me because I was in a same-sex relationship."

The court said the state's civil rights law, that prohibits businesses from denying service to customers on the basis of sex, race or religion -- also applies to sexual orientation.

"Doctors are required by law to treat all patients equally. To provide full and equal access to medical services," says Jennifer Pizer, Benitez' lawyer.

Doctors at a San Diego area fertility clinic refused to do an artificial insemination for Benitez eight years ago, because they said it conflicted with their religious beliefs. She sued, and the case eventually made its way to the State Supreme Court.

The court's ruling means the doctors won't be able to use freedom of religion as a defense as the case heads back again to trial court. The doctors' lawyers said the whole case is based on a misunderstanding.

"They never discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation against Miss Benitez ever," says Carlo Coppo, doctors' lawyer.

Coppo says other partners in the practice were willing to do the procedure, but when the day came, there was a miscommunication about where the sperm was coming from. The clinic was only set-up to handle frozen sperm, and the doctor thought he was being asked to use live donor sperm.

"The fact was, in the file that she was actually intending to use frozen sperm. If he had known it was frozen sperm, you and I would not be having this conversation. There would be no lawsuit," says Coppo.

Defense lawyers say there is a difference in the legal consent process for sperm bank donors versus other donors. They say the miscommunication all boils-down to a hand-written note left by a doctor who was on vacation at the critical time. Now that the court has settled the question of whether religion can be used as a defense, the case heads back to trial court where defense attorneys say the doctors look forward to telling a jury their side of the story.


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