And your conscience is no guide

California's highest court on Monday said doctors have to perform elective procedures desired by gays and lesbians; they can't get out of the obligation based on their religious beliefs.

Guadalupe Benitez was treated with fertility drugs for more than a year in hopes of eventually becoming pregnant through artificial insemination. But when the time came for that procedure, she says her two Christian doctors refused to go along because of her sexual orientation.

Ms. Benitez, now raising a 6-year-old boy and 2-year-old twin girls with her longtime lesbian partner, Joanne Clark, successfully visited another practitioner to whom the two physicians referred her. But she sued them, anyway.

After seven years, the case was finally heard by the California Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously Monday that the respondent doctors have neither a free speech right nor a religious exemption from the state's law, which "imposes on business establishments certain antidiscrimination obligations."

The California law was originally designed to prevent hotels, restaurants and other public facilities from refusing to serve patrons because of their race. Certainly no one would want a patient denied life-saving medical services because of race or sexual orientation. But when the law is expanded to cover the many procedures modern medicine can now contemplate, the court enters a Twilight Zone.

Jennifer Pizer, Ms. Benitez's attorney, claims the ruling was "a victory for public health." Really? What if a doctor declines to personally amputate a patient's sexual organs, rejecting the assertion that said patient believes he is "a woman trapped in a man's body"? In California, it now appears physicians have no right to refuse to perform such a procedure -- no matter their personal or religious reservations -- short of giving up their profession entirely.

Less than a century ago, it was considered good public policy in some states to sterilize the retarded without informed consent. Under this California ruling, would a doctor be allowed to decline to do that?

A legitimate "right" can't and doesn't impose an obligation or legal duty on others. Ethicists can debate whether the two doctors did the right thing. But California's high court has just ruled that medical doctors are nothing more than indentured servants on call for the state. Not only does that make them less free -- telling a doctor that he must ignore his conscience is also highly dangerous.


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