Court to weigh impact of doctors' beliefs

The case ultimately could influence what California physicians tell their patients about their religious ideology.

By Damon Adams — Posted June 27, 2005

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A California appellate court will determine if two physicians can use religious beliefs as a defense in a case involving a woman who said the ob-gyns stopped treating her because of her sexual orientation.

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, will answer that question before the case can go to trial.

The matter stems from a case involving patient Guadalupe Benitez, who filed a lawsuit in 2001 alleging that doctors at North Coast Women's Care Medical Group Inc. in Vista refused to artificially inseminate her due to their religious beliefs.

Benitez said she was treated at the clinic for infertility for 11 months, then doctors refused to continue seeing her because she told one of them she was a lesbian, according to court documents. Benitez alleged that obstetrician-gynecologist Christine Brody, MD, told her she had religious-based objections to helping homosexuals conceive through artificial insemination but that other doctors at North Coast could perform the procedure.

Benitez claimed that ob-gyn Douglas Fenton, MD, also at the practice, later told her that Dr. Brody and other staff members were uncomfortable with her sexual orientation and would be unable to help her. Dr. Fenton referred Benitez to a fertility specialist and reproductive endocrinologist, according to court documents. Benitez later became pregnant.

In her lawsuit, Benitez claims that the North Coast doctors discriminated against her.

A trial court originally dismissed Benitez's case, but an appellate court reversed the decision and sent the case back.

Back in the trial court, Benitez's attorneys then asked the judge to toss out the doctors' religious defense, and the judge agreed. Now the doctors are asking the appellate court to let them use their religious beliefs as a defense.

In the end, the case could impact how California physicians practice medicine and what they tell their patients about their religious beliefs.

"Doctors have to consider religious beliefs and decide if they're going to take part in certain health care programs," said Jack Lewin, MD, chief executive officer of the California Medical Assn., which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the physicians. "If they have religious beliefs that are going to impact the way they practice medicine, they need to make that very clear to any patients."

"CMA clearly would be vehemently opposed to health care discrimination based on sexual orientation," he said.

Carlo Coppo, attorney for North Coast and Drs. Brody and Fenton, said the physicians did not discriminate. He said the practice and its doctors made it clear under what circumstances they would perform intrauterine artificial insemination.

"Our clinic never does [intrauterine artificial insemination] for unmarried couples," Coppo said. "We don't abandon the patient. We refer them to someone else."

American Medical Association policy says a physician may decline a potential patient if a specific treatment is incompatible with the doctor's personal, religious or moral beliefs. But physicians must give sufficient notice to the patient before withdrawing from care.

Albert Gross, Benitez's attorney, said the case is more about the patient's rights than a physician's religious beliefs. "The issue is whether [doctors] can discriminate against a particular kind of patient."

Gay rights advocates are supporting Benitez's case. Lambda Legal said doctors may not object to treating certain groups based on beliefs.

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Case at a glance

North Coast Women's Care Medical Group Inc., Christine Z. Brody, MD, Douglas K. Fenton, MD v. Superior Court of California for the County of San Diego

Venue: California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One
At issue: Whether two ob-gyns can invoke religious beliefs to defend against a woman's claims of discrimination due to her sexual orientation.
Impact: California medical leaders say the case may impact the role religious beliefs play in a physician's practice.

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External links

California Appellate Courts case information on North Coast Women's Care Medical Group et al v. Benitez (link)

California Medical Assn. amicus brief in North Coast Women's Care Medical Group et al v. Benitez, in pdf (link)

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