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8-year lawsuit settled over US lesbians denied IVF

5 October 2009
Appeared in BioNews 528

A lesbian couple has won a landmark case against a Californian clinic, where doctors allegedly cited their religious beliefs as grounds to refuse the couple IVF treatment.

Guadalupe Benitez, 36, of Oceanside, and her spouse, Joanne Clark, sued doctors Douglas Fenton and Christine Brody, at North Coast Women's Medical Group in Vista for discrimination in 2001. The doctors treated Ms Benitez with fertility drugs and provided her guidance about self-insemination but allegedly told her they would not inseminate her, due to their religious objections.

The couple was, however, referred to another clinic by the North Coast doctors, which they were told would have no moral objections. Ms Benitez underwent treatment and the couple have since had three children. The discrimination case was finally settled after eight years for undisclosed sum of money. 'It's been a long, hard fight to get to this point,' Ms Benitez said following the settlement announcement, adding: 'But we know we've made a difference in the law that will help people in California and across the country.' The clinic released a statement saying it welcomed lesbian and gay patients.

Californian civil rights law prohibits discrimination in businesses which serve the public. Although the law does allow doctors the option to refuse certain medical procedures, such as abortion, if a procedure is available to the public, it must be made available to all.

The case went through a state appeals court in San Diego in 2006 which ruled in favour of the doctors. However, in 2008, the California Supreme Court barred Christian doctors denying treatment to patients on the grounds of sexual orientation. The ruling stated that the laws preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation extended to the medical profession. According to Jennifer Pizer, the lawyer for Benitez and Clark, the ruling 'shows a journey that our whole society is taking together, away from intolerance and towards inclusion.'

In the UK, the introduction of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 (amending the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990) allows lesbian couples to more easily receive IVF treatment on the NHS. Prior to this, the 'need for a father' criterion in the 1990 Act enabled some clinics to deny same-sex couples and single parents IVF treatment, through statutory interpretation. This was challenged in two legal battles earlier this year in Scotland and England. In both cases the initial decisions to deny treatment, made by NHS trusts, were overturned following threats of legal action.

18 November 2013 - by Cait McDonagh 
Two women claim to have been refused IVF treatment on the NHS at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester on the basis of their sexuality...
26 September 2011 - by Victoria Kay 
Doctors in Canada will consider a policy to withhold IVF to obese women at a national meeting of fertility experts this week....
25 October 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
The first parenthood show for gay and single people was held on Saturday in London. The Alternative Families Show featured seminars about fertility treatment, adoption, surrogacy and other options for starting a family...
27 July 2009 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
A lesbian couple have succeeded in obtaining IVF on the NHS after initially being refused on the ground of being the same-sex, reported The Times last week. The couple who wish to remain anonymous threatened an NHS Trust with legal action after they were denied fertility treatment for one of the women who became infertile after developing polycystic ovaries. The couple sought advice from David Herbert, partner at law firm Lester Aldridge, and put legal pressure on the Trust to overturn it’s d...
14 April 2009 - by Sarah Pritchard 
New legislation has came into force in the UK which will help to create a 'level playing field' for same-sex couples undergoing IVF treatment. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, which received Royal Assent in November last year, makes provision for both women in a civil...
2 March 2009 - by MacKenna Roberts 
Last Friday, the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (GGC) reversed its decision to refuse a lesbian couple IVF treatment after the couple launched a legal challenge against the local health board's decision to consider homosexual couples ineligible for fertility treatment because neither partner is medically infertile and...
13 October 2008 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
New laws that grant lesbian couples and single women equal access to IVF have been passed by MPs voting in Victoria's Parliament. The Assisted Reproductive Treatment bill was approved by 47 votes to 34, in a three day debate that lasted in the early hours. It will...
20 August 2007 - by Professor Eric Blyth 
The UK was one of the first jurisdictions to introduce comprehensive legislation regulating fertility treatment. Since the issues and practices regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act were - and remain - contentious, it is hardly surprising that the Act itself has been controversial. Section 13(5) of the Act...
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