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As Long as We Remember...

April 20, 2005

Time to Walk the Walk

Tony Soltero

There is nothing that changes one's life quite as dramatically as a medical emergency or the onset of a long-term illness. When such an unwelcome event enters our lives, we push aside most of our other concerns. Dealing with a chronic, degenerative illness requires a long-term reprioritization of material, financial, and spiritual resources, and life is never quite the same again.

Given the physical and mental dislocations that inevitably accompany medical conditions, we are grateful for the anchors that exist in our lives, those anchors that provide us with the coping and survival mechanisms that feed our will to fight and overcome, and help relieve the physical and emotional pain of disease.

For most of us, this involves our faith and our loved ones. We draw upon these support systems to get us through the most trying experiences life can offer us. There's nothing like the constant, enduring presence of someone you love to make the best of a bad situation.

And as we painfully observed during the Terri Schiavo drama, the results can be heartbreaking when we're unable to communicate who gets to speak for us and make our decisions for us in the event of complete incapacitation.

Most people, if they happen to be married, would cite their spouses as their anchors. It's a perfectly natural assumption to make. But people who don't happen to be married, or people for whom the option of marriage is unavailable, sometimes have to navigate through all sorts of legal thickets to ensure that their wishes are met regarding their choice of companions and decision-makers.

And even then they don't always get their wishes. This includes gay people, young or middle-aged adults caring for an incapacitated parent, and older couples who have declined to get married for fear of jeopardizing federal retirement benefits. And it also includes people who just plain prefer to stay single, but who maintain rewarding friendships and relationships. It's a free country.

There are many horror stories of people who have been denied the right to visit their loved ones in the hospital because their relationship wasn't legally recognized by the state. A long-term illness is traumatic enough as it is - for an afflicted person to be denied communication with the person he cares about the most due to bureaucratic meddling is unconscionable, and a major hindrance to the person's recovery chances.

It was in the spirit of making this situation easier for these groups of people that the Maryland General Assembly passed the Medical Decision Making Act of 2005. The bill, which passed by a sizeable margin in both houses, allows Marylanders to register with the state as "life partners" for the purpose of making medical decisions for each other, extending hospital visitation privileges, and making funeral arrangements if necessary. It's simply a mechanism through which a Maryland resident can say, "THIS is the person I want by my side should I become ill."

One would expect a piece of legislation so innocuous to be enthusiastically embraced by our Governor, considering that it does nothing more than extend full hospital visitation and other related rights to people who currently cannot count upon them, at the expense of no one.

Let's repeat that: There is NO ONE whose rights are being diminished by the Medical Decision Making Act. A man could care for his wife before this bill was passed; a man will be able to care for his wife after the bill becomes law. This bill should be a complete no-brainer to sign.

But what's going on? Governor Robert Ehrlich is vacillating. What's on his mind?

Mind you, support for this bill was bipartisan - our own Delegate Richard Weldon (R., 3rd) supported the bill, and it wasn't just lip service; he was one of the chief advocates. There's no traditional "Republican" or "Democratic" position to be taking for this bill - it's simply a matter of human decency, fairness, and equal rights, as well as an understanding that the individual's decisions take priority over the government's when the issue is hospital visitation.

But sadly, there's a small but vocal faction of the General Assembly that has decided to frame this harmless legislation as a "gay marriage" bill. By employing this utterly misleading but emotionally loaded phrase, the far-right extremist wing of our legislature, exemplified by Sen. Alex Mooney (R., 3rd) (Maryland's answer to Tom DeLay), has done what it does best - distract from the real intent of the bill and properly inflame its frothing-at-the-mouth fundamentalist base. And this Taliban group has exerted pressure upon the Governor to veto it.

Robert Ehrlich campaigned as a "moderate" during the 2002 election season (a must to get elected in highly-educated Maryland), and there have been times in which he's actually lived up to that claim, especially when he showed the courage to buck the far right and sign the medical-marijuana bill a couple of years ago. This current bill, one would think, is even less controversial than that one. It certainly enjoys a broader base of support. So what's the holdup?

As the Terri Schiavo story showed the nation, the Republican Party is deeply split between traditional small-government, honest conservatives who believe in personal freedom, and the theocratic-oriented, big-government, Taliban radicals who have hijacked much of the party.

We're about to find out which group of Republicans Governor Ehrlich most identifies with.

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