A transgender man is suing a Catholic hospital for refusing him a medically necessary hysterectomy — the latest in an ongoing series of treatment refusals by Catholic hospitals, based on religious grounds, that’s playing out nationwide.
“No hospital should be allowed to decide who their patients are, particularly when they receive government funds,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan of Lambda Legal, an attorney on the case for Jionni Conforti of New Jersey. “Denying care to someone at their time of need because of their sex or gender identity is not only dangerous and humiliating, it’s against the law.”
The lawsuit cites the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which clearly prohibits discrimination based on sex and gender identity — as well as Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex when federal funding is involved, as it is for the hospital in this case, St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, N.J.
“In the United States, one in six hospital beds are in Catholic hospitals,” Gonzalez-Pagan continued. “These health care providers must comply with federal and state anti-discrimination laws so that the health of LGBT people who walk through their doors is not endangered.”
Speaking with Yahoo Beauty, the attorney stressed the significance of New Jersey’s law against gender-identity-based discrimination. “This is an important reason why we need these laws in all states,” he said. “There are now 18 states including gender identity in their nondiscrimination laws, and we need them in the rest of the states as well.”
Regarding the federal part of the lawsuit, Gonzalez-Pagan says it’s impossible to know how a proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act would affect nonbudgetary measures, such as discrimination prevention, as no one knows exactly what such a repeal would look like at this point. “In any event, the conduct of this hospital is unlawful and wrong,” he said, explaining that the question here is not whether or not the hospital can deny service, but whether or not they can deny it on a discriminatory basis.
The problem began for Conforti, 33, a resident of Totowa, N.J., in 2015. That’s when he had scheduled the hysterectomy — a surgery deemed medically necessary by his doctor for Conforti’s gender dysphoria and based on his possibly increased risk of cancer. Although a nurse had allegedly initially confirmed that scheduling the surgery would be fine, Conforti later received an email from the Rev. Martin D. Rooney, of the Paterson Diocese, stating, “This is to follow up to your e-mail inquiring about scheduling a total hysterectomy here at St. Joseph’s to remove all female parts based on the medical necessity for Gender Reassignment. This is to inform you that as a Catholic Hospital we would not be able to allow your surgeon to schedule this surgery here at St. Joseph’s.”
The hospital sent Yahoo Beauty the following statement about the lawsuit: “St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center is a leading Catholic healthcare institution serving one of the most diverse and underserved populations in New Jersey. The Medical Center follows the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services in making decisions about care and treatment.”
Conforti, after a search of many months, eventually found another surgeon and hospital to perform his surgery, but he said the rejection by St. Joseph’s cost him emotionally.
“This is my neighborhood hospital. My whole family has been treated here and this is the hospital where I would be taken by ambulance in an emergency and they discriminated against me,” Conforti said in a statement. “I am shocked and saddened by the treatment I received and I am afraid of how I would be treated if I need medical care again. St. Joseph’s Healthcare who says it prides itself on a ‘patients first’ approach, completely disrespected who I am as a person and that is not how a hospital should treat people.”
Similar complaints have come out of service refusals by Catholic hospitals around the country — including in Michigan and California, in both 2015 and 2016, when women were denied lifesaving tubal ligation procedures on religious grounds, prompting lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Religious directives have no place in hospitals, especially because they end up harming the very women they should be serving,” a Michigan ACLU attorney said at the time of the 2015 lawsuit.
But we’ll likely see more cases like this, as there’s been much growth in Catholic-managed health care across the country, according to a report by MergerWatch, a watchdog agency keeping tabs on how religion influences health care. It found that between 2001 and 2016, the number of acute-care hospitals that are Catholic-owned or -affiliated grew by 22 percent, while the overall number of acute-care hospitals dropped by 6 percent. It also found that in 10 states, more than 30 percent of beds are in Catholic hospitals.
Conforti’s lawsuit comes less than a week after a judge in Texas ordered a halt to new U.S. Health and Human Services regulations that had been created to stop anti-transgender discrimination by doctors, hospitals, and insurers. And in North Dakota, a group of Catholic businesses and organizations filed yet another legal challenge to regulations that could prevent Catholic hospitals from refusing services such as abortions and gender transitions.
“While initiating a lawsuit is not something we take lightly, this new mandate represents a grave threat to religious freedom,” said Bishop John Folda, of the diocese of Fargo, N.D. No word on his stance when it comes to Catholic hospitals turning down federal funding.
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