When Janice Langbehn's partner of 18 years suffered an aneurysm, Langbehn and their children were not allowed to visit her in the hospital. Now the case is the subject of a lawsuit with major implications.

The case, detailed in today's NY Times, is heart-wrenching. The family was on vacation in Miami when Lisa collapsed, and when they arrived at the hospital a social worker allegedly told Langbehn that she was in an "antigay city and state" and would require health-care proxy forms in order to visit the ER. Although she produced the forms, she was still not allowed to see her partner for eight hours, only permitted access for five minutes while a priest administered last rites, and denied a chance to let the three children say goodbye until after Lisa was brain-dead. When Lisa's sister arrived, she was immediately admitted.

This Miami lawsuit, and a similar case in Washington State, raise an issue that is not a new one; hospital visiting rights is a common theme in the argument for gay marriage. And of course, a positive ruling vis a vis visiting rights could have major implications for all unmarried couples, to say nothing of friends and any number of relationships beyond traditional marriage. If successful, a ruling in Langbehn's favor could compel hospitals to respect a patient's wishes; right now, it's generally subject to a doctor's judgment in the case of emergency care.

Of course, there are legitimate legal reasons for having put such a policy in place - when it comes to questions like life support or other major decisions, it could conceivably get dicey to allow just anyone agency in these matters, to say nothing of legally problematic for hospitals. And certainly we get that you can't have various strangers wandering around the ICU, if that's what medical pros are concerned about. But surely there are simple, practical means of expanding this policy - the insurance equivalent of 'in case of emergency?' In a time when we're more than aware of the fragmentation of many family relationships and the importance of others, such restrictive policies and narrow definitions seem impossibly retrograde - and, when we hear about specific cases like this, inhumane. One of the more depressing aspects of the article, of course, is that legality is not guarantee of fairness - prejudice and cruelty can still find a way - but at least it's a start.


Kept From a Dying Partner's Bedside [NY Times]