by Matthew Nelson
Vice Chair, Compassion & Choices Board of Directors
Marriage equality is all the rage. The president is for it. The legislatures in Washington and Maryland are for it. Even the Reagan- and Bush-appointed judges are for it. (And let me be clear: I’m for it.) But it won’t help!
When it comes to ensuring equal rights at the end-of-life, marriage equality won’t help — not completely.
I live in the District of Columbia, work in Virginia and go to church in Maryland. My husband of 19 years and I are legally recognized as a couple in the District (we were civil-unionized but didn’t re-up when marriage became available since it didn’t change any of the legal rights and responsibilities). But if I were in an accident in Virginia and taken to the nearest hospital, my husband would no longer have the rights and protections the District affords us as a couple.
Even if marriage equality became the law of the land across the United States, it is not enough. Yes, you as a husband or wife to your partner would legally have the right to make decisions. But the reality of our society and its prejudices will compromise your decision-making. You may be asked to prove that you are married, that you have a legal right to make decisions or that the decisions you make are actually what your spouse wants. The time it takes to prove your relationship could be the time needed to save your spouse’s life or quality of life. You need to have a plan. Having intentional conversations and a plan is a must for every person and couple, but especially for lesbian and gay couples. At Compassion & Choices, having that plan in place is what we call being Good to Go; our material includes a specific section for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
Whether you are married, single, partnered or dating, you need to think about “What if?”
What if I were in a car accident and had a traumatic brain injury? What if my partner were diagnosed with cancer and given six months or less to live? What if my family has a history of dementia?
Planning for the end of life is never easy, but you can’t know when you or your loved ones might be faced with such decisions, so do it now before you are in an untenable position. Talk with your doctor. Talk to your family. (Yes, even married couples have to battle with parents and siblings — consider Terri Schiavo.) Consider under what circumstances you are willing to live and when you‘d be willing to stop the heroic measures. For each of us the choices are different, and the decisions change over time and with each circumstance. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan, think about and have conversations with your doctor and family.
When my father was dying, my parents’ clarity about their end-of-life wishes was a gift. The decision to withdraw all life support from my father was not easy, but we were clear it was right. Losing a husband, wife, spouse or partner is never easy. In these difficult circumstances, marriage equality will help make clear who has the right to make decisions. If you had that right and that responsibility, would you be clear what the right decision would be? Plan now so the decision is clear, even if it is not easy.