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A transgender man is suing the University of Maryland Medical System, and specifically the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, after doctors at the hospital refused to perform a hysterectomy on him because of religious objections.
Jesse Hammons, 33, of Baltimore, says he underwent blood tests, ultrasounds, and other health screenings to prepare for surgery, which had been recommended to treat his gender dysphoria.
The surgery was scheduled for Jan. 6, but a week before the operation, the surgeon called Hammons to inform him that the surgery had been canceled because it conflicted with St. Joseph’s Catholic beliefs.
According to the lawsuit, filed in federal court last week, Hammons alleges that Gail Cunningham, the hospital’s senior vice president for medical affairs and chief medical officer, ordered the hysterectomy canceled and informed Hammons’ surgeon that performing the procedure would violate Catholic directives to preserve the “functional integrity” of the body.
Cunningham also claimed that gender dysphoria did not qualify as a sufficient medical reason for approving the procedure.
But that conflicts with the findings of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, which states that hysterectomies are considered medically necessary surgeries for transgender men suffering from gender dysphoria.
Hammons’ lawsuit cites the recent Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., in which the high court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ people from discrimination “because of sex,” with Hammons claiming he was discriminated against because of his transgender status.
In it, he alleges that his surgery would not have been canceled but for his gender identity.
The lawsuit also contends that the denial of surgery violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law, and under protections contained in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act — which the Trump administration is currently trying to phase out — that prohibit sex-based discrimination.
The cancellation of the surgery also raises questions about the separation of church and state and the religious nature of the hundreds of hospitals across the nation that partner with secular institutions to provide medical services and receive taxpayer money, particularly in the form of Medicaid or Medicare dollars.
According to The Washington Post, UMMS has received nearly $25 million in public funds in the past two years.
St. Joseph Medical Center operated as a private Catholic hospital until 2012, when it was acquired by the University of Maryland Medical System.
As part of that acquisition, UMMS signed a written agreement promising to continue running the hospital as a Catholic institution that abides by directives set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
One of those directives — based on the central belief surrounding the importance of procreation — prohibits “direct sterilization,” and allows doctors to perform procedures like hysterectomies only “when their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.”
Hammons claims he had no idea that the hospital’s religious beliefs might interfere with his decision to pursue the surgery, especially since his surgeon, who remains unnamed in the lawsuit, had previously worked with other transgender male patients.
He was later forced to reschedule his surgery for May at another hospital, only to have that canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He was finally able to reschedule it a second time, and underwent the surgery on June 24.
Hammons told the Post that he has noticed a significant improvement in his mental health following the procedure, but remains frustrated and angry that UMMS denied him the surgery, which prompted him to filed the lawsuit.
“I can really just see how wrong it was to be denied in the first place,” he said.
Michael Schwartzberg, the media relations director for UMMS, released a statement claiming the hospital system “does not discriminate nor treat any patient differently on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability or sexual orientation.”
“The health and safety of our patients is, and always will be, our highest priority,” the statement read. “[St. Joseph Medical Center] was built on a mission of loving service and compassionate care and we sincerely regret the hurt and frustration caused by this event.”
Schwartzberg added that any patient not able to receive a specific procedure at a faith-based hospital can be referred to another UMMS hospital, adding: “UMMS is committed to addressing the healthcare needs of all Marylanders. One example of this is our dedicated Transgender Health program at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, which helps children, adolescents and their families explore medical treatment options surrounding gender identity.”
Several other Catholic hospitals have previously denied treatments to transgender patients, resulting in similar lawsuits that plaintiffs claim would otherwise have been approved for cisgender patients.
What’s more, says Joshua Block, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing Hammons, conflicts between a hospital’s purported beliefs and the provision of medically necessary care are likely to continue in the future, especially as more of religious hospitals partner with non-religious entities.
“It’s important to make crystal clear here that if you’re going to have a hospital that is organized around religious beliefs, that hospital can’t be intertwined with the government,” Block told the Post.
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