Unmarried "life partners," including gay couples, would be empowered to make health and funeral decisions for each other under legislation approved yesterday by the Maryland Senate.
Supporters said the bill, which passed 31 to 16, is intended to provide dignity and equal rights to people in committed relationships, including elderly couples in nursing homes who choose not to marry. In some cases, they argued, the bill could assist in making the gut-wrenching care decisions that have been highlighted by the Terri Schiavo case in Florida.
Sen. David R. Brinkley argued that "life partners" already have ways to secure legal rights.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
"What this bill does is give fair rights in a reasonable way," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's). "We're in the 21st century, ladies and gentleman."
Opponents questioned the message sent by the legislation and argued that several of the rights included in the bill already can be secured through the legal system.
"This is really a step toward homosexual marriage," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick). "One day we're going to wind up like Massachusetts."
Similar legislation won approval in the House of Delegates last year and is expected to receive strong, bipartisan support this year, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said he is closely monitoring the legislation but has not yet taken a position on the legislation.
The measure is modeled on measures in effect in several other states, including Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine. It would allow unmarried couples older than 18 who are living together to apply for a "certificate of life partnership" from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Those with certificates would then have rights not always available under current law.
During floor debate, Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) recounted a man's testimony at a hearing about being forced to wait at a hospital more than four hours before being allowed to see his partner of more than 20 years, who was in intensive care. Under the Senate bill, life partners would be given the same rights as immediate family members in such circumstances.
"This bill is decent. It makes sense," Brochin said. "It is the right thing to do."
The measure would give registered couples the right to make health care decisions for incapacitated partners and to accompany a partner being taken to a hospital in an ambulance. Partners also would be permitted to arrange for the final disposition of a body and to inspect records related to their partner's death.
Opponents of the bill argued that several of those rights can be achieved through power of attorney or a will. "There is a mechanism to do what we want to do," said Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick).
Other lawmakers countered that some rights in the bill cannot be obtained through the legal system and that not all couples are in a position to secure those rights that can be.
"A lot of individuals can't afford lawyers' fees. They can't access the documents to be drawn," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), the bill's lead sponsor.
Some of the testier moments during yesterday's debate centered on the inclusion of gay couples in the bill.
Pinsky argued that the legislation was needed to address "a homophobic problem."
Sen. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's) took umbrage, saying he opposes discrimination against gay people but believes that the legislation is flawed.
"I think this bill has many unintended consequences," said Green, among six Democrats who joined 10 Republicans in voting against the bill.
Twenty-seven Democrats and four Republicans voted for the legislation.