Infertility Clinic Accused Of Past Bias -- Women Say Lesbians, Singles Turned Away By UW Facility

Despite its claim it has never discriminated against single or lesbian women, the University of Washington's infertility clinic has turned them away in the past, a number of women familiar with the program have charged.

"It is not true that patients who are single or in lesbian couples have been able to get those procedures," said Dr. Susan Petcoff, a single woman who requested an advanced fertility procedure at the clinic last year.

"I was personally refused," said Petcoff, an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice.

Medical workers had objected because she was single, a staff member told her doctor, Petcoff said.

Recently a copy of an internal memo obtained by The Seattle Times revealed that some unidentified staff members were objecting to performing advanced fertility services for single women on religious and moral grounds. The services include artificial insemination, in- vitro fertilization and another high-tech procedure.

After a closed meeting Monday, an advisory committee decided the clinic must honor the university's policy prohibiting discrimination against patients based on sexual orientation and marital status, among other things.

After that meeting, Dr. Michael Soules, the director of the UW Medical Center's Fertility & Endocrine Center, said there had been no problems in the past.

"To my knowledge, there has never been any discrimination against single women or same-sex parents in the current infertility practice," he said.

Soules said the issue had come up only recently because two single women requested in-vitro fertilization (IVF), which had never happened before.

"It's not a question of currently what's going on, but what will happen in the future," Soules insisted.

But a former medical resident at the clinic said she was told in 1990 by Dr. Leon Spadoni, vice chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology, that the clinic didn't do infertility work on single women because of religious objections by some staff members.

The former resident, now an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she was shocked that a taxpayer-supported institution could discriminate.

Spadoni said he did not recall the conversation.

Throughout her residency, which ended in 1992, the clinic shunned single women, the former resident said. "Single women were not only not given IVF treatment, they weren't given artificial insemination," she said.

The stories of these and other women fly in the face of assertions by the clinic that it has never discriminated against single women.

The clinic's recent pledge not to discriminate in the future, Petcoff believes, is as shaky as its claim that it never did in the past.

"It's very upsetting to me that the impression has been parlayed around town that this has always been available to single women and lesbian couples," she said. "This is blatantly untrue and probably will continue to be untrue."

Soules declined to be interviewed for this story, and health-sciences spokeswoman Kathleen Klein said Soules' only comment would be a statement reiterating his previous assertion: "No patients at UWMC's Fertility & Endocrine Center have been denied care on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status."

Petcoff's former physician, Dr. Lori Marshall, is now head of a similar clinic at Virginia Mason Medical Center. Asked about this case, she said, "I would prefer not to comment on that for professional reasons."

Another patient, Audrey Bolyard, a UW Medical Center nurse, said she had a very difficult time with the clinic five years ago. A single woman, she requested artificial insemination but was told by a staff member she couldn't receive the service. No medical or other explanation for the refusal was given her.

Bolyard, 39, said she eventually was able to arrange for a clinic physician to perform the procedure only because she knew the doctor from working in the hospital's obstetrics unit. Usually, nurses perform the procedure. He did the procedure with donor sperm through seven unsuccessful pregnancies until she finally had a son two years ago.

When she went to the clinic, she said, most other staff members avoided her. "People would look away from me. . . . I was like the plague," Bolyard said.

`Off-limits' to lesbians, singles?

Other women said that regardless of the UW's written nondiscrimination policy, the clinic appeared to be off-limits to single and lesbian women. A spokeswoman for the Lesbian Mothers' National Defense Fund said she has never referred anyone to the clinic for infertility services because its literature appeared to indicate it served only couples.

A two-page sheet sent out by the clinic in 1990 begins with a sentence describing its donor insemination program as a "service for couples with male infertility." The brochure refers throughout to "the husband" and "the infertile couple."

Petcoff, who had her procedure done at another medical clinic, said she was angry and hurt when the UW clinic refused her.

"It caused me incredible disappointment," she recalled.

But she never protested, she said, because "it was too much of a personal issue."

If a private, church-sponsored hospital wants to choose not to do certain procedures, "that's their business," Petcoff said. "But the university is a public institution. . . . I'm part of the public, too."

Another person familiar with the UW program said that until the mid-1980s, the clinic had a policy not to provide artificial insemination with donor sperm, which had been used in other clinics around the country for decades. The person said "it was general knowledge" that Spadoni objected to it on religious grounds.

But Spadoni said the decision not to use donor sperm was made not on the basis of moral or religious objections but "because we are a research institution. We felt there was no information we could give or derive from developing a donor program."

In the mid-1980s, the clinic began using donor sperm.

"It became obvious there was a great need for this in the Seattle community, so it was set up as a service to patients," Spadoni said.

No debate at other clinics

Officials of clinics at Swedish and Virginia Mason medical centers say they have not had such debates over services for single women. But the fertility clinic at Puget Sound Hospital, in Tacoma, did.

"We went through the same thing as the UW about three years ago," said Dianne Smith, associate director of the Fertility Clinic of Puget Sound.

Smith said discussion of the issue began when a single woman requested artificial insemination. Clinic officials decided they needed a firm policy and asked for opinions from the hospital's ethics committee and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU said it would sue if single women weren't treated. The ethics committee also said they should be treated. One staff member, a nurse, resigned, Smith said.

"A patient's reproductive life is her own. We do any (single woman) without question," she said. The clinic treats a few single women each month, including, occasionally, lesbians, she said.

Smith said because so many babies are unplanned and unwanted, "If we can help contribute to having a wanted child being born to a loving mother, then we've made a contribution to society."