Meanest doctor in Michigan dumps baby patient of lesbian moms on religious grounds

A doctor decides she won't accept a gay family -- and in more than half the country, that's okay

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published February 20, 2015 3:22PM (EST)
  (<a href=''>kingvald</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(kingvald via iStock)

If you're in the business of providing healthcare to children and you refuse to do it based on your moral judgments of those children's parents, guess what? You're in the wrong business.

Even at a moment when LGBT rights have been especially challenged – with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback rescinding protections against discrimination based on gender and sexual identity, and foes of marriage equality losing their minds in Alabama – the story out of Michigan this week was still a jaw dropper. Back in October, new parents Jami and Krista Contreras brought their 6-day-old daughter for her first checkup with the Hazel Park pediatrician they had chosen for her ahead of time. But when they arrived, Dr. Vesna Roi sent out another doctor to tell them she would not accept their family as clients -- because the mothers are gay.

For months, the parents kept the incident quiet, but they recently decided to go public with it, because as Jami Contreras told the Detroit Free Press Thursday, "We want people to know that this is happening to families. This is really happening. It was embarrassing. It was humiliating ... It's just wrong." Her wife Krista Contreras added, "I was completely dumbfounded. We just looked at each other and said, 'Did we hear that correctly?'.... When we tell people about it, they don't believe us. They say, '[Doctors] can't do that. That's not legal.' And we say, 'Yes it is.'" Michigan currently has no anti LGBT discrimination laws.

In a note to the family written earlier this month, Dr. Roi apologized for the "hurt and angry feelings caused" but said that after "much prayer following your prenatal" visit, she had decided that "I would not be able to develop the personal patient doctor relationship that I normally do with my patients…. Please know that I believe God gives us free choice and I would never judge anyone based on what they do with that choice." She added that the family are "always welcome in our office" and had "assumed" they could continue their care with a different doctor in the practice. She signed it, "Blessings."

Wayne State University Constitutional Law Professor Robert Sedler told the Detroit Free Press that under Michigan law, "It's the same as a florist refusing to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding. Basically, the pediatrician handled this in an appropriate way. She turned them over to another doctor." But he noted, "I think that's very troubling. It's clearly not illegal, but it certainly raises an ethical question." And Dr. Gregory Blaschke, chair of the AMA's LGBT Advisory Committee, said that "Respecting the diversity of patients is a fundamental value of the medical profession, and reflected in long-standing AMA ethical policy opposing any refusal to care for patients based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other criteria that would constitute invidious discrimination." Yet as Media Matters notes, "LGBT people face high rates of discrimination in health care, especially in states that have adopted "broad religious exemptions" from medical non-discrimination laws."

It's pretty damn clear that far stronger protections against this kind of refusal of service are needed on a national level. So far only 22 states have laws "that prohibit doctors from discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation." But I would argue that there's still a big difference between not wanting to make a floral arrangement for a wedding and turning away a child. And that difference largely rests on whether independent creative contractors should be required to create work that they, even if it's for reasons the rest of us strongly disagree with, don't support. I think that bakers and florists aren't doctors. And it troubles me deeply that last month a Denver bakery found itself facing a civil rights claim it was "discriminated against" when it turned down a customer who wanted it to decorate cakes with anti-gay sentiments.

If there is any upside to the Contreras case, it's the hope that the family are now in the care of a loving, compassionate pediatrician who sees that baby for exactly what she is – a loved child who is lucky to have caring parents. They've been spared unwittingly having their daughter in the hands of someone who manages to come to some really messed up conclusions, after "much prayer," about her parents. They've made clear yet again the need for stronger protections against this kind of cruel and unethical behavior. And they've shed a light on how spectacularly unconfined bigotry can be, that it can radiate all the way to an infant, emanating from a practice that vows, "We look forward to seeing you and to taking good care of your child."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Dr. Vesna Roi Jami Contreras Krista Contreras Lgbt Michigan Parenting Pediatrians