July 29, 2005
Volume 33
Issue 30

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Expert medical, civil rights and community health organizations unite to oppose religiously based discrimination in health care
Expert medical, civil rights and community health organizations unite to oppose religiously based discrimination in heal
SAN FRANCISCO - In response to assertions in friend-of-the-court papers filed by the California Medical Association (CMA) and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations (CMDA) in the California Court of Appeal in San Diego in favor of a doctor's right to discriminate against patients on religious grounds, a broad array of community and health care organizations came together to file court papers released this week saying that it is not acceptable for physicians to pick and choose who receives their medical services based on medically irrelevant personal characteristics.

The case involves fertility doctors who refused on religious grounds to inseminate their patient, Guadelupe "Lupita" Benitez, who is a Lesbian. "We think it's important for the community to recognize that the positions of the CMA and the CMDA in this case do not reflect generally accepted principles of ethics in the practice of medicine," said Joel Ginsberg, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, one of the organizations filing this week's amicus brief.

The amici are represented pro bono by Benjamin R. Martin and Gail Standish of Winston & Strawn LLP, one of the nation's oldest and largest law firms with 900 attorneys in business centers around the world. With them as co-counsel are the Anti-Defamation League, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and the National Health Law Program.

"The expertise and stature of these diverse organizations underscores how many patients are placed at risk by CMA and CMDA's approach to these issues," said Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel in Lambda Legal's Western Regional Office, who is representing Ms. Benitez. "We vigorously defend everyone's right to free exercise of religion, but there is an essential limit when religion becomes a force for harming others."

"We thought it particularly important to raise the alarm about this case because numerous states are considering bills that seek to permit anti-Gay discrimination in health care by allowing medical providers to refuse service based on 'ethical' or 'moral' beliefs related to who the patient is, as opposed to the procedure," said Mr. Ginsberg. "Whether or not doctors can object to providing particular services, such as fertility treatments or abortion, medical ethics are clear that when a doctor is willing to perform a service for some patients, it's ethically inappropriate to refuse that service to others in a discriminatory manner."

Oscar De La O, Executive Director of Bienestar Human Services, the largest Latino community based non-profit agency in the country providing HIV-related and other health services, said, "Bienestar was founded in response to the neglect and mistreatment of members of our community in so many medical settings. Our experience teaches us that a religious exception to anti-discrimination laws means an end to fair health care access for all. If doctors are allowed to deny treatment to people with whom they have a religious objection, clients such as ours will again be put at great risk and the stigma of HIV/AIDS will intensify, with terrible repercussions."

In addition to GLMA, the signers of the brief in opposition to the CMA and CMDA include the Anti-Defamation League, the American Academy of HIV Medicine, the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care, the American Medical Student Association, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, Bienestar Human Services, the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, the California Women's Law Center, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Mautner Project, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and the National Health Law Program.

The plaintiff in the case, Lupita Benitez, appreciated the overwhelming support. "Doctors are supposed to heal, not judge. Being turned away because of who I am was a devastating experience. I'm so grateful that these wonderful doctors and community leaders have stood up to the California Medical Association to say that discrimination in health care is wrong."

Lambda Legal
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