No Way to Run a Civil-Rights Movement

September 21, 1994|By LAUREN WEINER

Now that the Baltimore City Council is reconvening, the as-yet unapproved gay-partnership bill will likely be news again. Here's hoping the debate this time around will not focus on trumped-up issues like hospital-visitation rights for gays and lesbians.

Before the bill was voted down at the end of the council's session in May, homosexuals were told to rally 'round the bill because, as two reporters from The Sun wrote, ''Hospitals usually only allow close relatives to visit critically ill patients.'' Lulled by a generally tolerant American society, I for one was frightened to be told that I needed a gay-partnership bill to pass in order to avoid problems during some medical emergency.

Some checking at local hospitals revealed that visitation of critically ill patients is usually decided by the individual medical units within a hospital. The gatekeepers are the nurses, even when, as is sometimes the case, there is a family-only policy on the books. Surgical nurses and intensive-care nurses at 13 Baltimore hospitals told me that they allow gays to visit critically ill partners all the time. As one nurse said, ''It is not our place to make judgments.''

A spokesman for the 14th hospital I called -- the University of Maryland Medical Center -- hinted that, if family members of an incapacitated or comatose patient do not accept the patient's homosexuality and want his or her ''significant other'' banished, the hospital would likely enforce the family's preference.

That was the only trace of restrictiveness I found. It leads us to consider what we might call the Kowalsky scenario. In a case that is famous among gay men and lesbians, the parents of a car-accident victim, Sharon Kowalsky, barred her homosexual lover from her hospital bed- Scare tactics about hospital visitation.

side. The case dragged on for years in the courts, until the lover won the right to see Ms. Kowalsky and care for her during her physical rehabilitation.

So just when are homosexuals' visitation rights in jeopardy? When they run into unsympathetic nurses, or when the patient's parents are like Sharon Kowalsky's. Even in these cases there is a remedy.

A document can be drawn up now -- the legal term for it is an ''advance directive'' -- which designates a ''health-care agent.'' You need two witnesses to create this document. You don't need a lawyer or a notary public. What is more, the document can transfer medical decision-making authority to your ''health-care agent'' at a future time if you become mentally incapacitated, or immediately, while you are still competent. Immediately sounds good: Your ''agent'' will of course be guided by you, so you remain in de facto control. And your ''agent,'' under any common-sense reading of the law, will have to be able to visit you to carry out his or her assigned role.

Under a federal law of the early 1990s, and under Maryland's Health Care Decision Act of 1992, hospitals are required to ask patients if they have one of these advance directives. If the admitting clerks don't ask you, you should present it. (I'll be devising one that's wallet-sized.) If you don't arrive at the hospital with one, you can easily create one right on the spot.

The idea is to be prepared for Kowalsky-type parents, and for those hospitals (Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center was one that gay activists singled out) where there has been occasional discrimination against homosexual partners of critically ill patients.

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions in the Maryland attorney general's office, pointed out that any unmarried couple, homosexual or heterosexual, might face an ugly family squabble during an unforeseen medical crisis. Everyone in this group needs to come prepared: with an advance directive, as well as the courage to insist on one's rights under these new federal and state laws.

There may be other good reasons to advocate a gay-partnership bill in Baltimore, but one Baltimore minister who opposed the bill in May spoke the truth when he said: ''I think it's a smoke screen when they talk about hospital visitation.''

In trying to enlist rank-and-file homosexuals in their cause, Baltimore's gay leaders needlessly disturbed our peace of mind. Their sponsoring politicians on the City Council went along with the scare tactics. This is no way to run a civil-rights movement.

Lauren Weiner is a free-lance writer.

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