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California Court Comes Out: The Bioethics of Benitez

Although heralded by gay rights advocates as the second great decision of the summer in California, Benitez v. North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group is far from finished. On August 18, the Supreme Court of California ruled unanimously that the state’s anti-discrimination law limits a clinician’s constitutional right to religious freedom, when that right is invoked against the interest of a patient.  The ruling settles an initial issue of legal priority, and the case may now proceed to trial.

Guadalupe Benitez, a lesbian, is suing two ob-gyns in a five-person practice after they refused to perform an intra-uterine insemination. Benitez contends that the refusal was based on her sexual orientation, a violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. The physicians contend that their religious beliefs prohibit them from assisting an unmarried woman to become pregnant.

Benitez raises several issues of current and continuing interest to bioethics:

  • Assisted reproduction and marital status. Since gay marriage is legal in two states, a lesbian seeking assisted reproduction services may now be a married woman – although she is unlikely to be married to her sperm donor. But what if she isn’t married? What if she and her partner live in one of the other 48 states? Possibly the religious objection to assisting the impregnation of lesbians could be masked with a religious objection to assisting the impregnation of single women.
  • The limits of conscientious objection in medicine.  Physicians in California have a legally protected right, under “conscience clauses” in federal and state constitutions and in professional codes, to refuse to perform or participate in procedures to which they object on religious or moral grounds, with abortion being the most frequent trigger for a conscience refusal. These policies are highly controversial. For physicians to invoke a right of conscience under constitutional freedom of religion protections, as in Benitez, to refuse to treat a person is perhaps even more troubling. The physicians in Benitez had no objection to performing or participating in assisted reproduction procedures; it was Guadalupe Benitez to whom they objected.

The trial court will now hear arguments as to whether it was Benitez’s marital status or her sexual orientation that motivated the physicians’ objections, and to the validity of these claims under California civil rights law at the time of the refusal.

To keep up on Benitez: Lambda Legal, Benitez’s legal counsel, provides online updates. The Los Angeles Times, which has reported on the case, covers breaking news.

Published on: August 22, 2008
Published in: Bioethics

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