Obama's Order on Visitation Rights Strikes a Blow for Decency, Healthcare Professionals Take it in Stride

John Commins, April 26, 2010

President Obama's executive memorandum last week giving hospital patients the right to grant visitation to same-sex partners was as decent as it was overdue.

The president said he was moved to issue the memorandum after hearing about the plight of a woman denied access to her partner of 18 years who was dying in Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami hospital after suffering from a brain aneurism. 

However, in this highly partisan atmosphere, where every White House action prompts a dog fight, the reporter in me figured that somebody, somewhere in healthcare was going to be upset. After all, hundreds of hospitals in this nation are affiliated or operated by religious denominations, some of which explicitly denounce homosexuality as a sin.

It seemed like an easy story. Get a few quotes "pro" and "con," a little background, a little brouhaha, and hit the "send" button. The "pro" quotes were pretty easy to come by, but I was surprised when I tried to find someone in healthcare to speak out against the memo. Instead of controversy, I got acceptance.

My first instinct was to check with the Catholic Health Association of the United States, only because the Roman Catholic Church has been quite emphatic in its rejection of homosexuality. Would Obama's memorandum prompt a crisis of faith for some of the nation's largest group of not-for-profit health systems?


"The Catholic Health Association has long championed the rights of all patients to designate who they want to speak for them in healthcare decisions when they are not able to speak for themselves," Sister Carol Keehan, president/CEO, said in a statement on the CHA Web site. "Having that person clearly designated is not only a basic human right, it also greatly facilitates care."

I checked with Baptist Health South Florida. No controversy there "From our perspective, it's not an issue because we have a very flexible and open family visitor policy that we established years ago," said Health system spokeswoman Christine Kotler. Kotler says she hasn't heard of any objections from Baptist employees. "We asked that question of our social work services, our nursing administrators. We did circulate that question and resoundingly everyone came back and said this has never been an issue," she said.

Jackson Health, the inspiration for Obama's memorandum, actually pre-empted the president's announcement by a few days with word that it had worked with with a coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups to create a more-inclusive visitation policy.

Let's be clear: I didn't conduct an exhaustive search on the issue—a few passes through Google and some media outlets—and I'm not saying that everyone within healthcare supports the President's memorandum. I'm saying I couldn't find any healthcare organizations that oppose it.

None of this is surprising. Visitation rights are not abstract talking points for healthcare professionals. Physicians and clinicians see first hand, every day, how important it is for same-sex couples to enjoy the same rights and access to loved ones as everyone else. I suspect that many healthcare professionals have also witnessed the heartbreak—the fundamental unfairness of it—when that access is denied.

Sister Keehan said it best: "All persons of goodwill can understand and agree that when a person is sick, they deserve to decide who they want to visit them."

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John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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