Published on February 1, 2017
Discrimination is an ugly accusation, especially when leveled against the Church. Last month, Jionni Conforti — who identifies as a transgender man — filed a lawsuit accusing St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in New Jersey of “unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex,” a violation of New Jersey law and the Affordable Care Act. Why discrimination? Because St. Joseph’s refused to let Conforti’s surgeon schedule a hysterectomy to complete her gender reassignment, female to male. (Conforti underwent a mastectomy years before in Texas.) As a Catholic hospital, St. Joseph’s does not do hysterectomies for purposes of gender reassignment.
Although this case involves one plaintiff in one diocese, it highlights several emerging problems for Catholic institutions as the “gender revolution” unfolds.
The conflict underscores how quickly our national landscape has shifted. Increasingly, across the culture, transgender identities are normalized and conscientious objections stigmatized. The business community, for instance, has embraced the transgender agenda; many of America’s largest companies have taken a stand against state-level religious liberty protections. Moreover, 82 percent of Fortune 500 companies provide gender identity protections and benefits, gender and sexual diversity training for employees and donate to LGBT causes. Today’s culture “leans in” to affirm, not discriminate against, transgender identities.
In fact, specific protections for sexual orientation and gender identity are designed to create a legal and cultural environment that requires civil society to affirm LGBT identities and behaviors. The New Jersey complaint, for example, seeks not only monetary damages for “emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment and a loss of dignity,” but also, more ominously, a permanent injunction ordering the Catholic hospital to change its policies and provide transgender individuals with “gender confirmation” treatments. Put differently, Conforti’s lawyers want to force Catholic institutions to jettison Catholic doctrine and surrender to gender ideology.
Catholic identity matters greatly. Institutional commitments to the Catholic mission must be reflected consistently at every level, from CEOs to ground-level communicators. Conforti’s complaint contains troubling, though unproven, allegations that St. Joseph’s looked the other way while physicians performed procedures typically prohibited in Catholic facilities, including elective hysterectomies and tubal ligations for contraceptive purposes, in apparent violation of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. Those allegations may or may not prove true.
St. Joseph’s, for example, publishes a patient’s bill of rights, stating that the hospital provides care “in accordance with the moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.”Strong institutional practices demonstrate authenticity, but require regular reviews and practical reinforcement to remain effective. A Catholic facility may publicize its Catholic identity, but does the institution explain its Catholic mission and equip employees to implement it?
According to the complaint, however, Conforti confirmed plans for the hysterectomy with a senior member of the hospital nursing staff, who allegedly said the hysterectomy could go forward, as long as documentation showed it was “medically necessary” for gender dysphoria.
“Medically necessary,” though, means one thing to transgender activists and another to Catholic ethicists. Father Martin Rooney, the hospital’s director of mission services, decided differently, and informed Conforti that the surgery could not be scheduled.
Language is another important consideration. The gender revolution has triggered an avalanche of new terms and tricky definitions — and the resulting terrain is tough to navigate. It redefines basic words like marriage and sex in order to “subvert” the “hetero-normative, cisgender norms” imposed by patriarchal institutions (or so their theory goes).
In Spain, for example, transgender activists recently tried to change the meaning of two basic words: “boy” and “girl.” They distributed posters in several cities showing naked children with opposite-sex genitals. Their slogan? “Some girls have penises, some boys have vaginas.” By redefining the term “girl” to include a biological boy who thinks he’s a girl, transgender advocates inject new assumptions and meanings into the public discourse.
Similarly, the New Jersey lawsuit attempts to redefine “sex” as “gender identity.” The plaintiff was born a woman but now identifies as a man and wants to be rid of “female parts.” The hospital basically said, no, we don’t remove healthy reproductive organs just because a woman says they remind her that she was born a woman.
Besides redefining terms, transgender activists have generally controlled how gender issues are framed. It’s easier to win the public’s sympathy, for example, by fighting for a vulnerable person than by defending an abstract idea (“religious liberty”) or a “biased” institution (the Church). They put the vulnerable people at the center of their narrative, assert their “rights” to trans-specific services and then interpret the religious believer’s unwillingness to provide those services as an expression of bias or hatred toward the person. Conforti’s complaint accuses the hospital of refusing “medically necessary” care because of “who he is”— a transgender man. (Ironically, Conforti’s complaint also says that Conforti’s family relied on St. Joseph’s for care, for years — which suggests St. Joseph’s doesn’t have a problem with “who he is,” but instead provided care precisely because of who Conforti is, a person made in God’s image.)The complaint employs “doublespeak” to justify the demand. It asserts that Conforti’s male “gender identity” is the patient’s “true sex,” and conversely, that “sex” is determined mainly by subjective experience of gender identity. In unilaterally redefining essential terms, progressives obscure the truth, confuse good people, and render dialogue nearly impossible. So Catholic institutions must tread carefully.
The hospital’s unwillingness to be a venue for gender reassignment has nothing to do with who Conforti is, and everything to do with what the surgery entails (removing a healthy uterus) and why it was requested (to reassign gender and reduce feelings of gender dysphoria).
Jionni Conforti found another surgeon — at another hospital — to perform the gender reassignment as desired. But the narratives of the gender revolution are not going somewhere else anytime soon.
Mary Rice Hasson directs the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.