Most people would agree that doctors, like everyone else, should be able to live according to their religious principles, and that gay and lesbian people, like everyone else, should have access to medical care. But which takes priority when those two rights clash? Ruling in a San Diego County case, the California Supreme Court chose the right to medical care, correctly focusing on the basic principle of nondiscrimination.
The case involved a lesbian, Guadalupe T. Benitez, who was turned away when she sought artificial insemination from an obstetrics and gynecology medical group. Benitez claimed she was refused because of her sexual orientation; the doctors said they wouldn't perform the procedure on any unmarried woman. In 1999, when the incident occurred, the doctors would have been within their rights, though state law now bars discrimination based on marital status.
Those points remain in dispute. But the justices were clear on one point: Doctors, in the course of operating a business, cannot refuse a patient because of his or her sexual orientation, just as they would not be allowed to reject patients based on their race.
This leaves doctors who hold certain religious beliefs in an uncomfortable situation, one they can best manage by helping individual patients find the best practitioners for their specific medical needs. But they have not lost all rights to practice within their beliefs. Physicians can refuse to perform any procedure, such as abortion or in vitro fertilization, that they find morally objectionable. But if they do perform such procedures, they cannot provide them to some groups of patients and not to others. It is true that artificial insemination is an elective procedure, not a matter of saving life or limb, but that's not the issue here.