City Settles Suit With Catholic Pediatrician Over Birth Control

Agrees it cannot force doctors to prescribe contraceptives.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The City of Philadelphia has reached a settlement with a Catholic pediatrician who was fired after she refused to prescribe birth control options like Depo-Provera and the morning-after pill to the young women in her care, and part of that settlement includes the implementation of a policy that precludes the city from forcing healthcare workers to provide care that goes against their religious beliefs.

Doris Fernandes worked for the City of Philadelphia as a doctor for 35 years after moving to the United States from her native India. She was employed as a pediatrician at West Philadelphia’s District Health Center #4 at 4400 Haverford Avenue, one of eight city-run clinics.

The services at the city’s district health centers include everything from regular check-ups, sick visits and immunizations to HIV and STD testing and family planning. But when it came to family planning, Fernandes opted out of prescribing contraceptives. As a devout Catholic, she felt that doing so would be in violation of her religion.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit she filed in October 2014, Fernandes claimed that the city never had a problem with her decision until 2013, when her boss — Victor Igbokidi, the medical director of pediatric and adolescent services for the Department of Public Health — told her in no uncertain terms that she had to start prescribing contraceptives. Fernandes responded to Igbokidi in a letter, telling him that she could not comply. “For participation is strictly forbidden by my religious beliefs and against my conscience,” she wrote. After that, the city fired her.

In court documents, the city painted a different picture. They insisted that Fernandes, who wore a pro-life pin in the office, was never required to prescribe contraceptives and they claimed that she refused to follow a departmental policy requiring her to refer patients with questions about contraceptives to another doctor. The city also maintained that patients complained about her lack of empathy. In a deposition, Fernandes admitted that she once told a patient who had an abortion that she had committed murder.

Ultimately, Fernandes and the city settled the case, with the city paying her a low six-figure sum. The city also agreed to adopt a policy entitled “Health Care Provider Requests Not to Participate In Certain Forms of Care.”

“This policy addresses situations where a provider has a conscientious objection to providing a certain form of care and making a direct referral to other providers,” it reads. Any employee with such a concern can provide written notification to management of their “conscientious objection.” When a patient comes in requiring care that goes against that objection, the health care provider is instructed to inform the patient “in a nonjudgmental fashion” that they cannot provide the requested care and that the patient will be referred to another doctor or a member of the nursing staff.

We asked the city for more information about the policy and for a comment. They responded with a copy of a statement made by the pro-life organization American Center for Law & Justice, founded by Pat Robertson. “This resolution is a positive outcome for all involved,” it reads. “It respects to the fullest extent possible the religious liberty of doctors and medical providers who have religious objections to certain forms of medical care.”