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“A hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean”

April 16, 2010, 3:37 pm | Posted by Kristin Ford

Yesterday, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, instructing her to “ensure that patients can receive compassionate care and equal treatment during their hospital stays,” by giving patients the right to designate visitors. This directive addresses the current flaws in our hospital status quo, which can lead to gay and lesbian patients being separated from their families in the toughest of times (like Janice Langbehn, who was barred from entering the hospital room of her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond, after Lisa suffered an aneurysm and was dying). But this memorandum isn’t just about the LGBT community; it also allows widows, widowers, nuns, priests, unmarried couples, and others to designate their loved ones as visitors, even when not legally connected.

The directive speaks poignantly of the need for compassion and companionship at life’s darkest moments:

There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean — a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them.

The faith community is speaking out in support of these new guidelines and the way in which they further our society’s recognition of the humanity and dignity of every person. For a list of statements from religious groups and partners, check out the press release here. I thought this statement from Richard Cizik at the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good was particularly powerful:

“It is not only a policy that reflects the compassion of the American people, but it is an across-the-board guarantee to people of all faiths and traditions to have access to their loved ones in times of grave emergency and distress. To have access to loved ones in all conditions of life is something Evangelicals see as compassionate and just.”

Sadly, what should be cause for celebration has been marred by a few fringe organizations attacking the directive as a stepping-stone in a quest to “redefine marriage.”

Today, in a live discussion at the Washington Post, Peter Sprigg from the Family Research Council reiterated his organization’s opposition to the President’s directive, saying:

“Granting patient’s autonomy and self-determination in deciding who can visit them or make medical decisions in an emergency is a good thing, and with advance directives it does not have to be based on a family or marital relationship–or even a sexual one. Unfortunately, this issue has been inflated in support of redefining marriage.”

While we can and should have a civil and respectful conversation about same-sex marriage, it seems abundantly clear from reading the President’s memo that this conversation is entirely separate from the directive on hospital visitation. It seems cruel to deny the reality that many individuals (gay, straight, young, old, nuns, widows, mothers) have suffered through a serious medical trauma alone. This announcement is a welcome opportunity for common ground. Regardless of how we feel about gay marriage or any other issue, can’t we agree that no one should die alone? No one should be separated from a loving partner or a steadfast friend in time of deep pain and distress.

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