When Doctors Discriminate

Most of you have probably never heard of Jami and Krista Contreras, a Michigan couple and the proud parents of a six-month-old girl named Bay. Shortly after Bay was born, the Contrerases began interviewing pediatricians, looking for one who practiced holistic medicine.

After meeting with nearly a dozen doctors, the newly married couple finally settled on Dr. Vesna Roi, a pediatrician in private practice with nearly 19 years of experience caring for children like Bay. On the morning of their first appointment, however, Dr. Roi refused to see them. The reason: the Contrerases are a same-sex couple.

In a handwritten letter delivered to Jami and Krista by another doctor at the pediatric clinic, Dr. Roi apologized but stated that, “after much prayer following your prenatal [visit], I felt that I would not be able to develop the personal patient doctor relationship that I normally do with my patients.” Dr. Roi’s religious faith, it seems, makes her uncomfortable around lesbian couples.

I actually have some sympathy for Dr. Roi. She clearly felt that she could not give the Contrerases, or their daughter Bay, the level of care that they deserved. In fact, a strong doctor-patient relationship is the key to quality health care. If Dr. Roi felt uncomfortable around Jami and Krista, or felt uncomfortable in asking them questions about those aspects of their personal lives that could affect the health of their daughter, she might overlook pieces of information that were important for Bay’s preventative care or therapeutic treatment. The Contrerases might also pick up (consciously or subconsciously) on Dr. Roi’s unease, and be less than forthcoming about their concerns or opinions. Given this, Dr. Roi was not the right pediatrician for Bay.

Vesna Roi also had the right to refuse the Contrerases as patients. For the most part, doctors are legally bound to treat patients only once they have entered into a care relationship. Even then the doctor can terminate the physician-patient relationship under certain circumstances (if, for example, a patient is non-compliant with treatment, the patient is abusive to providers, or the services sought are not covered by the patient’s health insurance). But the physician must provide a reason for terminating the relationship and must ensure continuity of care.

Ethically, Dr. Roi is on shakier ground. If she felt that she could not establish the necessary doctor-patient relationship with the Contrerases, she probably shouldn’t take them on as patients. But Dr. Roi should have been upfront with the Contrerases sooner, rather than waiting until the morning of Bay’s first pediatric appointment to inform them of her reluctance.

Moreover, while the American Medical Association (AMA) and other professional organizations recognize the right of clinicians to refuse to provide specific treatments if they are incompatible with a doctor’s personal, religious or moral beliefs, it’s hard to see how such “conscience clauses” apply in this case. Conscience clauses are meant to apply to specific medical procedures, most notably abortion and sterilization, rather than to specific classes of patients. If we allow a physician like Dr. Roi to reject patients on the basis of sexual orientation (whatever her personal, religious or moral reason), should we also allow a doctor to turn away patients who are Black or Latino? To turn away patients who are Muslim, Jewish or Atheist? To turn away patients who are women?

Of course we would never allow this. It is morally reprehensible. This is why the AMA, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional organizations that respect the conscience of physicians also make it clear that doctors should not refuse care based on race, gender or sexual orientation.

It would also be illegal to refuse a patient based on race, religion or gender under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sadly, this is not the case for sexual orientation or gender identity. Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) individuals are not protected by the Civil Rights Act, but rather by a patchwork of state laws and local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Only twenty-two states have laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in “public accommodation” (e.g. businesses that serve the public, including pediatric clinics like Dr. Roi’s). Only fourteen states extend those same protections to gender identity. Michigan is not one of those states, so that what Dr. Roi did is morally questionable but it is not legally actionable. Had she lived here in New York, she could have been sued (unless one of the Contrerases had been transgendered, since the Empire State still allows discrimination based on gender identity).

We need these laws, both at the state and the federal level. Sure, people like Dr. Roi may be uncomfortable in dealing with lesbian patients or gay clients. But that’s not a reason to legally allow or publicly condone discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The same arguments were used for years to justify discrimination against women, Black and Jews, until the Civil Rights Act forced people to challenge their biases and question their assumptions. It’s time to do the same for the LGBT community.

As I said before, Dr. Roi was not the right pediatrician for Bay. But she could be, once she learns to look beyond her personal prejudices and see the Contrerases for who they are: human beings with the same needs, fears, and hopes as her. But it might take a legal nudge to get Dr. Roi and others like her to take that first step.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on February 26, 2015, and is available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
This entry was posted in Discrimination, Health Care, Homosexuality, Human RIghts, Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

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