Last week President Obama surprised many with an order that prohibits hospitals from discriminating on the basis of several characteristics, including sexual orientation, and denying visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians. The order also requires administrators to honor patients' wishes regarding who can make medical decisions on their behalf, including partners or close friends, gay or straight. It seemed like a sound move for Obama politically—give his sometimes-impatient gay supporters equal rights in a crucial area, while choosing an issue so popular that conservatives would only turn off moderates by opposing it.
But the reaction from both gay activists and conservatives has been strangely muted. Illinois conservative pundit and recent GOP Senate hopeful Andy Martin was one of the few voices calling Obama's action akin to "creating a new 'homosexual Roe v. Wade' for Republicans and conservatives in November." In a blog post, he wrote that "President Obama's imposition of gay rights on every American hospital will become the gift that keeps on giving for Republicans in the 2010 election."
That prediction looks unlikely to be fulfilled. Why? Because many Christian and conservative organizations support the rights of patients to choose who will be with them or make decisions for them in a time of need. That doesn't, however, mean that conservative groups or gay-rights advocates are entirely happy with the decision.
Focus on the Family senior vice president Tom Minnery released a statement saying the conservative Christian organization supports the order but questions whether it should have required a presidential memorandum. "We are troubled by this and previous examples of the Administration's efforts to undermine marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA]." Richard Land of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission says, "The only way social conservatives would really be opposed to this would be if it had just singled out gays and lesbians for favorable treatment, and not everybody. As long as it's inclusive, we’re OK with it."
The conservative Christian Family Research Council criticized the methodology of the decision rather than the substance of it. "These are private contractual arrangements that are not limited to family members—and therefore do not require redefining the words 'marriage' or 'family,' " wrote Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the FRC, in a press release. "In its current political context, President Obama's memorandum clearly constitutes pandering to a radical special interest group; undermining the definition of marriage; and furthering a big-government federal takeover of even the smallest details of the nation's health care system."
Sprigg's memo was one of the few that publicly challenged the decision. He says that other conservative organizations may have been wary of reacting publicly for fear that their reaction would be construed as not supporting patient rights, adding that gay advocates have used hospital rights "to tug at people's emotions and generate sympathy for the movement, and the president has played right into their political gamesmanship." He has spoken out, Sprigg says, only to point out that the problem was exaggerated to begin with. (Nonetheless, there are many cases of couples being denied access, including one highly publicized case of a social worker being kept from her dying partner's bedside. Recent news reports have pointed to troubles for other couples, including one story, unverified by NEWSWEEK, of two elderly men in California who were separated from each other into different nursing homes, and, according to reports, had their home valuables auctioned off.)
Sprigg argues that Obama's decision may in fact help conservatives opposed to gay marriage, in that the hospital visitation issue has now been taken off the table: "The next time I debate someone on TV about same-sex marriage, that's exactly what I'll tell them—I'll say, 'The president already took care of that, didn't he?' "
And that is exactly what gay advocates are worried about. Lt. Daniel Choi, recently arrested for handcuffing himself to the White House fence in protest of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, has joined forces with the civil disobedience-oriented organization GetEQUAL, for whom he issued a statement today. "Last week's hospital visitation directive is a welcome, but small step. Long gone are the days when will we accept crumbs and politely smile as if we were served the entire meal," said Choi. "We are tired of waiting. We are tired of seeing our money and our support go to politicians who promise us everything yet give us only small token gestures in return."
Charles Moran, a spokesperson for the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBT organization that promotes Republican interests, agrees that most conservatives are not lashing out at the decision because there is broad public support for it: "That's why you're not hearing the Pat Robertsons or James Dobsons going after this." But Moran is going after it. He explains that while, as gay advocates, "of course, we're happy about this," they are also disgruntled. Laws regarding visitations wouldn't have to be altered if the administration would make a real move on gay marriage, he says. By throwing out small, politically palatable benefits like visitations, the larger issue of gay marriage and gay equality is being swept under the rug. "This piecemeal approach is kind of a slap in the face. We are looking at Obama and thinking, 'This is all you can do?'"