Even as the recent brouhaha over the opposition by Miss California, Carrie Prejean, to gay marriage continues to get attention—she claims it cost her the Miss USA crown—I'm struck by another gay rights controversy heating up this week. Should lesbians have the right to visit their life partners in the hospital? Two lawsuits have been filed that say a hospital has a legal obligation to grant visitation to a patient's designated loved ones or next of kin. Both patients at the centers of these cases lay dying without their partners at their bedside even though they'd signed advanced directives and power-of-attorney documents designating these partners as decision makers for them, according to the New York Times.
It seems to me that hospital visitation rights should be a no-brainer—and far less controversial than gay marriage, with all of matrimony's religious connotations. Why shouldn't lesbian patients have the same right as anyone else to have their partners holding their hand in the hospital? One woman wasn't allowed to sleep in her dying partner's room even though the hospital typically permitted spouses to sleep over. Another couldn't enter the shock trauma area where her partner was being treated for a burst aneurysm.
Still, I wonder whether these cases were clear-cut examples of discrimination against gays. Hospitals have been known to limit visitation for nonmarried partners in heterosexual relationships, including those Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt-type couples with kids but no wedding rings. And shock trauma units often have strict rules about whether family members can be present when lifesaving therapy is being administered. After observing the shock trauma center at the University of Maryland Medical Center yesterday, I can see why. A dozen or more physicians and nurses will circle a patient whose life is at stake, grabbing defibrillators, portable CT scanning machines, and chest tubes as needed. An observer—whether a reporter or a distraught loved one—is liable to get in the way.
I hope these lawsuits will do what should have been done long ago: set up clear, standardized rules for patient visitations. I'm guessing most folks would agree that a gay partner—or nonmarried heterosexual one—should have the same rights to see their significant other as a spouse. The care of the patient should be all that's taken into account when hospitals make decisions as to whether to allow visitors or prohibit them.