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Catholic Hospital Sued For Abruptly Canceling Trans Man's Gender Confirmation Surgery

A Catholic health system in Northern California is being sued for its alleged last-minute denial of medical care to a transgender patient. 

Oliver Knight, a 29-year-old trans man, claims St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka canceled his August 2017 hysterectomy for religious reasons. “The Catholic bishops didn’t approve of my surgery. It seemed unreal,” he wrote in an essay for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping represent him in court.

The hospital’s decision was communicated to Knight “minutes” before the surgery was supposed to take place, he said.

The hysterectomy was an important step in his process of transitioning and was meant to help balance his hormones. He said he attended a separate pre-op appointment days earlier without any issues being broached and followed doctors’ instructions to prepare for the surgery.

On the day of the scheduled operation, he donned a hospital gown and hooked up to an IV. That’s when he said a surgeon came into his hospital room and informed him that the procedure couldn’t go forward. 

According to the ACLU, Knight’s medical records show the cancellation was based on an “ethics assessment” completed by a religious priest with no medical training.

After hearing about the cancellation, Knight said he was given medication to address an anxiety attack. Fifteen minutes later, the hospital allegedly asked him to leave.

“I still had booties on my feet as a nurse led me outside,” he wrote in the essay. “I felt humiliated and queasy as I sat on the curb waiting for my roommate to pick me up.”

In addition to denying the surgery, Knight claims he was repeatedly misgendered by staff at the Catholic hospital. The staff allegedly refused to use the male pronouns he told them he preferred, even though his medical records identified him as male.

A nurse also refused his request for a blue gown instead of a pink one, telling him he was receiving a “female” surgery, he said.

“I felt like a child all over again, sitting uncomfortably in a pink dress. But I forced myself to do it, I had been waiting so long for this,” he said.

Oliver Knight, 29, was already hooked up to an IV when his hysterectomy was cancelled.

Oliver Knight, 29, was already hooked up to an IV when his hysterectomy was cancelled.

St. Joseph Hospital told NBC News on Monday it is still investigating the incident. 

“At St. Joseph Health, we believe health care is a basic human right and that every individual seeking care should always be treated with compassion and respect,” a hospital spokesperson said.

The hospital did not immediately respond to a HuffPost request for additional comment.

Four days after he was denied the surgery, Knight’s hysterectomy was performed at an independent hospital about 12 miles away, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. Knight said he wanted to have the surgery at St. Joseph’s to be closer to his home. The delay of the operation disrupted his life and caused anxiety, he said. 

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of anti-trans bigotry but I didn’t expect it from a hospital,” Knight said in a statement. “It seems the hospital doesn’t understand how it feels to be treated inhumanely just because your body parts do not match your soul.” 

Gender-affirming care is lifesaving and medically necessary ACLU lawyer Elizabeth Gill

Elizabeth Gill, an ACLU attorney, told NBC that even though St. Joseph’s is religiously affiliated, it is “open to the public, is publicly funded and is therefore subject to the requirements of nondiscrimination under California law.” 

“Gender-affirming care is lifesaving and medically necessary,” Gill said in a statement. “Transgender people are part of our community, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods and they, just like everyone else, deserve to get the health care they need.”

The lawsuit against St. Joseph’s was jointly filed by ACLU foundations in California and the Oakland law firm Rukin, Hyland & Riggin. 

St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka is part of the Providence St. Joseph Health Network, which operates 51 hospitals across the country. According to the ACLU, Catholic hospitals are the largest health care provider in California. 

Catholic doctrine does not have an explicit stance on gender confirmation surgery. As a result, the church’s policies around the procedure usually center around its moral objections to hysterectomies.

Procedures that result in sterilization are generally condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican organization composed of cisgender, celibate men who are responsible for adjudicating matters of faith. In January, the group reaffirmed the church’s stance against hysterectomies that “impede the functioning of the reproductive organs.” It clarified that the procedure should only be undertaken when medical experts are absolutely certain that a woman’s body is incapable of carrying a fetus to viability.

In 2016, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined with other conservative groups to argue that refusing to perform gender confirmation surgery is not discrimination. The USCCB, another group that is wholly composed of cisgender and celibate men, helps set ethical standards for Catholic health care providers.

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