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North Coast Women's Care Medical Group vs. Superior Court (44 Cal. 4th 1145) is a case decided before the California Supreme Courtmarker on August 19, 2008, ruling that physicians must offer services to gays and lesbians despite religious objections or find a colleague in their office who will do so.

The suit was brought by Guadalupe Benitez, a lesbian from Oceansidemarker, Californiamarker, who was treated in 1999 for infertility at the only clinic in her area that accepted her insurance. Two physicians at the North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton, refused to perform an artificial insemination treatment on Benitez because they claimed that such treatment to an unmarried person violated their Christian religious beliefs. After she was denied treatment, Benitez argued in court that the physicians and the clinic really based their decision on her being a lesbian. This supposedly violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity covering places of business and public accommodation; marital status was not addressed until 2006. She won at the trial court level in San Diegomarker, but that decision was later overturned by a state appeals court. The California State Supreme Court's decision favoring Benitez was unanimous.

Writing for the court, justice Kennard said
California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, from which defendant physicians seek religious exemption, is “a valid and neutral law of general applicability” (Smith, supra, 494 U.S. at p. 879). As relevant in this case, it requires business establishments to provide “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services” to all persons notwithstanding their sexual orientation. (Civ. Code, § 51, subds. (a) & (b).) Accordingly, the First Amendment’s right to the free exercise of religion does not exempt defendant physicians here from conforming their conduct to the Act’s antidiscrimination requirements even if compliance poses an incidental conflict with defendants’ religious beliefs.


The case became a heated subject in medical and bioethics circles. The California Medical Association initially sided with Brody and Fenton. Bioethicist Jacob Appel drew attention to the case in 2006 with an article in The Hastings Center Report.

References

  1. Bob Egelko, Doctors can't use bias to deny gays treatment, San Francisco Chronicle, August 19, 2008.
  2. JM Appel. May Doctors Refuse Infertility Treatments to Gay Patients? The Hastings Center Report, 2006;36(4):20-21.



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