May 17, 2006

New York Daily News on "Albany 101"

When you live here, this kind of "no, you will not pass important laws, not until you serve our bidding on some numskull rider" story requires no real comment, and it so confused me (the facts of the story, not the story), that I couldn't even read it straight before I blogged it.
ALBANY - In a classic case of Albany gridlock, lawmakers fixated on abortion and gay rights are blocking a bill that would rescue thousands of elderly and disabled New Yorkers from legal limbo. Legislation first proposed 13 years ago would give family members and close friends the right to make medical decisions for patients who are too sick to speak for themselves. Today, in many cases, family members have no such control, leaving the fate of their loved ones in the hands of strangers with medical degrees. Fixing this glitch should be a no-brainer. Forty-eight other states managed to do it with little fuss.

But Albany is where no-brainers go to die, because lawmakers here are all too willing to put their narrow agendas ahead of the greater good. In this case, a measure that's vitally important to patients and families across the state is being held hostage by pro-choice and gay rights purists in the Assembly.

The bill says nothing about abortion or gay relationships. But it includes a line saying family members of an incapacitated pregnant woman should, in thinking about her best interests, "consider the impact of treatment decisions on the fetus." And - unpardonable sin No. 2 - it fails to specify that same-sex partners should have the same rights as husbands and wives.

Abortion-rights groups themselves aren't upset. They studied the innocuous reference to fetuses and decided it was no threat. But critics in the Assembly's Democratic majority act as if it's tantamount to overturning Roe vs. Wade. "I'm not comfortable voting for it," Assemblywoman Deborah Glick said of the fetus reference, saying she's worried about how it would be interpreted by the courts.

The bill doesn't mention spouses of any kind, gay or straight. Instead, it says decision-making rights should go to the "close friend or relative" who is most familiar with the patient's wishes. The bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, said the effect is to put domestic partners on the same plane as husbands and wives. But Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, who is gay and suing to marry his partner, begs to differ.

"It's not a small issue to me," O'Donnell said. "To garner my support [the bill] has to remove the language about the fetus and treat gay and lesbian people with equality and fairness."

This nit-picking would be comical if it didn't have such tragic consequences. Every day, at hospitals and nursing homes across the state, doctors and family members struggle with gaps in the current law. Doctors often find a way to consult a patient's loved ones, but they're on shaky legal ground when they do - especially when it comes to pulling the plug to end someone's suffering. And, when Terry Schiavo-like disputes arise, facilities can shut family members out entirely and do what they think is best.

Since 1993, supporters of the bill have been trying to craft the perfect compromise without success. They inserted the fetus clause last year to answer objections from the Catholic Church, which had blocked action in the Senate.

The Catholics did the right thing, accepting a compromise for the greater good. Now, with a month remaining in the legislative session, it's high time for Glick, O'Donnell and their like-minded colleagues to quit the petty, paralyzing politics and let the bill go through.

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