Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Real Problem With "Defense of Marriage"

I have a problem with the Religious Right's cynical use of the term "Defense of Marriage," as in the proposed amendment to the US Constitution that would prohibit the recognition of gay couples as married within this country. I want to know, when two people who love each other and wish to be legally married, how does that threaten marriage? I would argue that if you find married gay couples to be a threat, then you need to examine your own marriage more closely. Divorce threatens marriage, but the Religious Right doesn't seem interested in banning divorce (yet), merely in ensuring that loving gay couples can never have the status of married, with all of the legal rights and obligations that status carries with it.

Oh, sure, gay and straight couples alike don't have any legal obligation to get married, and civil unions are not unheard of, so why get married at all? It costs more than simply living together. Since getting married, my wife's and my combined taxes have only gotten higher. We're not religious, so we had no qualms about living together outside of marriage. We didn't need a marriage certificate and ceremony to prove to ourselves or anyone else that we loved each other. We can't have kids, so whether or not we believe that married parents make for a better environment in which to raise children, that's no reason to get married, either. We would have been just as happy, and arguably financially better off, to live together without being married, as we are now as a legally married couple. So why did we, and why do thousands of other couples across this country just like us, bother to get married? For the same reason that thousands of gay couples want to get married.

I have gay friends who are, in all but legal terms, married. I think that's great; I'm happy for them. When I think about it, I can't help but remember how happy it made me feel to hear my wife say "Yes" (actually, it was more like "Of course!" but who's counting?) and I take a little comfort knowing that my friends were able to experience that same happiness. But it bothers me that I have something that they legally are not permitted simply because they are gay and we are not. By law, my wife has my medical power of attorney. She can speak for me when I can't speak for myself. My wife, someone in whom I have confided my deepest desires and secrets, things I would never tell anyone else, can make the decisions that I can not. I know that she would carry out those wishes as I would were I able to. As her husband, I have a right that my gay friends do not have, the right to have my spouse make decisions for me when I am unable. Or do I?

I'm sure that Terri and Michael Schiavo thought that they had the rights of a married couple the day before her heart stopped and she lost the capacity to choose or refuse medical treatment for herself, but they are in serious danger of having those rights no longer. My wife and I, and all married couples in this country are in the same danger if a precedent is set that removes those rights.

The Florida courts have declared that Terri Schiavo's right to have her husband speak for her now that she can not still stands. The federal courts have twice decided that it's not a federal matter, and that the Florida state court's decision holds the force of law. But the Florida legislature, the US Congress, and the Brother's Bush have inserted their own noses into The Schiavos' private affairs and are attempting to nullify that right, ostensibly on Terri's behalf.

The matter of Terri Schiavo is not about the right to life versus the right to die. It's not about the State's rights to decide matters not specifically allocated to the federal government. It's not even about a parent's rights to make decisions for a child - Terri Schiavo is no longer a child. It's about a person's right to have matters of medical importance be decided by their spouse at times when they are incapable of making those decisions for themselves.

When Terri and Michael Schiavo married, they declared to the world that they were one, that each could speak for the other when the other was no longer capable. Michael Schiavo says that his wife told him that she would not want to be kept alive if she were to "become a vegetable." Is there any reason to believe that he would lie about this consistently for the last 15 years? No. Perverse accusations of a failed murder attempt notwithstanding, Michael Schiavo has nothing to lose or gain in the matter, unless it's the satisfaction that his wife's wishes are finally carried out. Does the fact that there is no clear and convincing evidence that she told her husband not to allow her to live as a vegetable make any difference at all? No. Clear and convincing evidence is required of the accuser, not the accused. Is there clear and convincing evidence that she ever said anything to the contrary? No, not that it matters any more than the above, but her parents' and brother's claims to the contrary are as much hearsay as Michael Schiavo's claim that she did not want to be kept alive in such circumstances. Absent any evidence that Michael is anything other than a loving husband who only wants the wishes of his wife to be carried out, Terri Schiavo's right to have her husband speak for her is being infringed upon by meddling, knee-jerk moralists and grandstanding politicians simply because she never took the precaution of drawing up a living will.

And it could happen to me. So let me say right here, this commentary is my living will. My wife already knows this, but until recently I never felt it necessary to make it formal because I always believed she would be allowed to speak for me when I could not. So, to all concerned - keep your collective meddlesome, moralist noses out of my business. I trust my wife, and she speaks for me. I trust the medical profession to know when recovery from a vegetative state is likely or not. If a competent physician declares that my life is maintainable only by persistent medical or hospice care, that I can no longer enjoy the company of my wife, family and friends, that I will never again see my niece look up to me and smile, that I will never laugh again because I won't hear or understand my wife's jokes, that I will never feel my dogs licking my face again, turn me off. That's not me any more, merely the body I formerly occupied.

Terri Schiavo's so-called defenders like to claim that the mark of a truly advanced society is in how it treats its citizens at the beginning and end of life. If so, then we are barbarians for the way we have abrogated Terri Schiavo's right to spousal representation, even moreso for exploiting her for political gain. The ancient Greeks were much more civilized than we, believing that a person's right to die with dignity if they so chose was paramount. The part of Terri Schiavo that was Terri died 15 years ago. It's time to set selfishness aside and allow her body to follow, as she asked her husband to ensure.

Note: Terri Schiavo's body died on March 31, 2005, 10 days after this commentary was originally written. May she finally rest in peace.

So how does Terri Schiavo have anything to do with gay marriage? Ask your friendly neighborhood religious rightist and you will get nothing more than confused, or more likely angry stares. But the Religious Right want gay marriage banned to "protect" traditional marriage. At the same time, they fought viciously to violate a married couple's single right arguably most in need of protection: that right of a married person to have their spouse represent them when they can not represent themselves. This hypocrisy is my problem with the term "Defense of Marriage."

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