Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doctors' Religion and Their Refusal to Perform Medical Procedures

The Washington Post has an article this morning regarding yet another interesting issue before judges in California. The court is being asked to determine whether doctors can refuse medical treatment to patients based on the doctors’ religious beliefs.

The issue apparently arose when a gay woman sought fertility treatment from two doctors. The Plaintiff in the case stated that she had her civil rights violated and is alleging that the doctors refused treatment as “it was against their religion to perform insemination on a lesbian.” The doctors replied by stating that the fact Plaintiff was gay played no part in their decision, as the insemination of a single woman, no matter their sexual orientation, contravenes their religion.

Defendants’ lawyer claims that, “Freedom of religion absolutely protects all of their conduct in this case. There are two areas in medical care where freedom of religion is invoked most clearly: in the creation of life and the termination of life." He believes that doctors should have the right to exercise their religious beliefs in procedures involving either life or death. The Plaintiff’s lawyer does not necessarily disagree with this; she claims, however, that if a doctor is to refuse to perform such procedures based on their religious beliefs, this refusal must be applied to all patients and not just a specific group.

It is obvious in this case that these doctors are preventing a select class of individuals, namely single females, access to medical procedures. Depending on how the California State Supreme Court rules, there could be “far-reaching consequences for doctors and businesses, and for unwed women, particularly lesbians, trying to conceive.”

With California’s recent same sex marriage decision and the severity of the potential issues in this case, it would seem that the court would most likely side with the Plaintiff. If this turns out to be a refusal based on sexual orientation rather than marital status, it would seem that the state has already put in place measures to attempt to equalize the rights of gays living in the state, and allowing such selectivity in performing medical procedures would be a step backwards in such attempts. Even if this turns out to be an issue based on anything other than sexual orientation, to allow doctors to refuse patients treatment due to the doctors’ religious beliefs could lead to effects outside of abortion and fertilization treatments; some doctors may claim that their religion prevents them from treating a murderer or other criminal, causing delay in a life saving operation.

However, the issue becomes cloudy in a case like this as the fertilization treatment is obviously not a life saving procedure and not an emergency. Clients have the option to look for a doctor who will provide the treatments should they initially be refused based on the doctor’s religious beliefs. Clients in such cases have a conscious choice of where they are being treated and can select the doctor they feel comfortable with.

The trick for the court will be to ensure that their ruling does not have unintended effects such as those mentioned above and in the article. If they rule against Defendants and disallow selective treatment, it would seem that this would send a clear message to all doctors in all areas of the state on what the proper procedure is. If the court rules in favor of Defendants, again it would seem that a clear cut rule would be in place. However, if the court decides to delineate between elective and life-saving procedures, the ruling may become more ambiguous; in such a case, the court would most likely have to include language in their opinion limiting and/or specifying the applicability of religious based decisions in the medical profession.

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