25 August 2008

Maggie Gallagher: Idiot of the Month?

It's been a while since I recognized idiocy in the media, so something special was needed to earn a special distinction for the entire month of August. I think I've found it in the newest column by Maggie Gallagher. She's been provoked to commentary by the California Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in the case of Benitez v. North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, which she reads as a blow against freedom of religion.

What was that blow? Guadalupe Benitez, the plaintiff, sought an artificial insemination. A female doctor at North Coast Women's Care refused to treat her. Gallagher explains the doctor's motive: "she was perfectly willing to help treat Guadalupe's infertility -- restoring a natural function of the body -- but she had qualms about impregnating (which is basically what the doctor does in these situations) a woman without a husband."

Benitez is a lesbian. Gallagher makes it sound as if the doctor objected to Benitez becoming a single mother, but notes earlier in her column that Benitez is, in her words, a "partnered lesbian." Gallagher can't bear to sully the word "married" by associating it with homosexuality. While Gallagher herself, based on past columns I've read, might object to inseminating a single mother of any sexual preference, the doctor at North Coast appears to have been motivated by religious homophobia.

Gallagher believes that the doctor has an unassailable, perhaps inalienable right to deny treatments to patients based on her religious scruples. She believes the court should have cut the doctor some slack because "We are not talking here about necessary medical care but an elective procedure -- artificial insemination -- that is obviously fraught with moral issues which are necessarily different from, say, the decision to have your appendix removed or a knee replaced."

By the same standard, the doctor ought to have kept her views to herself because, the issue not being one of life and death, there was no urgency to the consultation requiring her moral intervention. However, Gallagher believes that the doctor was exercising not merely her freedom of speech but her freedom of religion. I don't know what the doctor actually said to Benitez, but it can't have helped the doctor's lawyers in the state court if people believed, as Gallagher does, that her advice was an implicit form of proselytizing for a religious faith. But that seems to be exactly what the lawyers argued: the doctor was entitled by virtue of her faith to refuse artificial insemination to a patient on moral grounds.

Again, Gallagher tries to defend the doctor by trivializing Benitez's demands. "The sexual liberty at stake in this case was not the right of an individual to live as one chooses -- to be free from bullying, fear and harassment. It was the right to be protected by the government from the knowledge that one of your fellow citizens disagrees with some of the choices you have made." In Gallagher's mind the poor doctor is put in the same predicament as the protesters in Denver and Minneapolis confined to their "free speech zones" and denied the right to confront the very people whose policies they want to protest against. I say that, of course, not knowing whether Gallagher approves of "free speech zones" or not. But based on my recent reading, her opinion reminds me of Abraham Lincoln's belief that blacks had a natural right not to be enslaved, but not much right to anything else in white society.

"Equality trumps liberty in the eyes of our courts," Gallagher complains. This contemptuous sniffle suggests that Benitez has no liberty interest, so to speak, in seeking a rebuke of the doctor. Gallagher could not state more plainly that homosexuals have no real "liberty" that moral people are bound to recognize. I'm going to let her make the closing argument for her own idiot award: "I understand that irrational prejudices must be contained and stigmatized if we are to have a decent society. I do not understand how any decent society can deem a moral reluctance to create a fatherless child a hateful and irrational prejudice that must be stamped out."

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It doesn't surprise me that she doesn't understand. Gallagher most likely thinks that doctors who refuse to inseminate lesbians should have the same protection that the Bush administration last week extended to doctors who refuse to perform abortions. I think we might actually resolve this issue if we think on the level of institutions rather than individual doctors. If a woman visits a hospital seeking an insemination or an abortion, any given doctor could opt out on moral grounds as long as the institution itself was required to have someone on hand at all times who was prepared and willing to perform the procedures in question. As long as abortion remains a constitutional right and artificial inseminations are legal, any medical institution that depends on government assistance, or any that is the sole institution in its community, must provide services that may be legally demanded. If that means firing someone and replacing her with a cooperative physician, so be it. If that means quotas in future hiring to ensure that patients seeking controversial procedures aren't burdened by long waiting, so be it. Beyond that, doctors have no right to attempt to dissuade patients from elective procedures on any but medical grounds. To the extent that doctors are scientists, they have no business telling patients that procedures they may legally demand are "wrong." If they can't suppress their moral impulses on these matters, they should find new lines of work or learn from Dr. King, who was always willing to pay the price in jail time for civil disobedience. I doubt that the doctor in this case is going to prison, so she ought, dare I say, to take whatever punishment she faces like a man.

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