Living Wills and the Marriage Debate

Celebrities host fund-raiser for a gay-led group that advocates for assisted suicide

Gays and lesbians have long known that without a complex package of legal documents protecting certain rights, same-sex couples are vulnerable to obstacles and setbacks. The appointment of a health-care proxy is a standard part of that package that has also come to include a living will.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, when AIDS began to claim the lives of tens of thousands of gay men, the right of a terminally ill person to determine the time of their death became part of the growing debate on gay rights.

With the advent of life-prolonging protease inhibitors, however, HIV has become a manageable disease, of sorts, and the sense of urgency around the “right-to-die” movement has waned in the queer community.

The recent case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida women judged to be in a persistent vegetative state, whose husband claimed that she had stated a preference for dying rather than remaining in such a condition, has re-ignited interest in the right-to-die movement. In late March, Schiavo passed away 13 days after a judge ordered the removal of a feeding tube.

Compassion and Choices, an organization that advocates for the right of terminally ill people to end their own lives, gave a red-carpet benefit on May 19 at the studio of Diane von Furstenberg. The actress Ally Sheedy, TV fashion personality Isaac Mizrahi and local restaurateur Florent Morellet hosted the event.

An auction of artworks by Nan Goldin, Louise Bourgeois, Spencer Tunick and other artists raised $70,000 for the organization, bringing the total net for the evening to $150,000—twice what the last fund-raiser yielded.

“A good death is one of the most fantastic things a person can achieve,” said Morellet in a recent interview. The longtime Meat Market businessman and community activist recalled that death and dying were subjects discussed at his family’s dinner table in France. The youngest of three boys, Morellet said his parents made it very clear in many conversations that it was his responsibility to ensure that they did not linger with no hope of recovery should they become incapacitated in old age.

It came as a surprise to Morellet, then, that when his grandmother was dying, his mother became insistent that her life be extended by artificial means. When Morellet, then 24, confronted his mother, it was “a very intense situation, because she always advocated against this. With the help of my father we convinced her that Grandmother didn’t want this. I was really the one who pushed this issue.”

Morellet has continued to push. In New York City in the 1990s and caring for a friend dying of AIDS, he became angry about what he described as abuse by the medical system. He teamed up with friends to put an ad in Paper Magazine explaining living wills and referring people to an organization then called Society for the Right to Die.

The group did not appreciate the satirical tone of the ad, and the executive director of the organization contacted Morellet.

“I tried to explain it to her on the phone, and said ‘Let’s do lunch. Come to my place,’” he recalled.

When they met, Morellet said, “ ‘Listen, I have AIDS, my lover has AIDS and people around me are dying left and right. You have a new constituency of young, bright people you have to reach out to. The only way to reach out to them is with a sense of humor.’ We became friends right away, and they asked me to join their board. The organization had merged with another one and became Choices in Dying, which advocated end of life rights but not assisted dying.”

When that organization folded into another in 1997, Morellet and others started the New York affiliate of Compassion in Dying, a group that came out of the Hemlock Society, which advocated for hospice care and assisted dying.

“In the late ‘80s, it was very much like the trenches,” said Morellet. “A lot of people were taking the matters in their own hands,” meaning that terminally ill people were committing suicide. “There was a lot of botched death. As the protease came, a lot of people lived longer. What we’re starting to see now is more people that are failing, because they have exhausted their treatment regimens.”

On May 19, the artists, activists and celebrities gathered at von Furstenberg’s Chelsea studio aimed at bringing visibility to the right to die movement. Actor Sheedy came to the forefront, to present an award to her stepmother, Marilyn Webb, an author and speaker on death and dying.

Sheedy told Gay City News, “Marilyn writes about end-of-life issues, has been an advocate, a journalist and as a writer spent a lot of time with the Kavorkians and Elizabeth Kubler Ross,” the famous hospice activist who died earlier this year.

Sheedy compared the issue to abortion.

“If you make it illegal, people are still going to find ways to do it that are dangerous, costly and under the table,” she said. “If it is legalized, they can make a choice that is cleaner, and above board.”

She pointed to the legalization of assisted suicide in Oregon as a working model.

Sheedy said that assisted death impacts the gay community, not only in cases of terminally ill partners, but in how it relates to the issue of gay marriage and the Schiavo case. Sheedy’s stepmother, Webb, went further by pointing out the high rate of terminal diseases like breast cancer and heart disease that lesbians face, and the related burdens and challenge which their partners face as care-givers.

Michael Schiavo fought a seven-year battle to remove the feeding tube that kept his wife, Terri, alive in a vegetative state for 15 years. However, lacking legal documents to prove that his wife did not wish to linger in such a condition, and then under pressure from Republicans—including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Pres. George W. Bush and congressional leaders who fought to keep the feeding tube in—he endured a lengthy legal battle in various courts to win the right to let his wife die.

The case put conservatives in the contradictory position of espousing an amendment to the Constitution to “protect marriage between a man and woman,” while opposing the right of a husband to make health-care decisions on behalf of his mentally impaired wife.

Right-wing Republicans, said Morellet, “say court judges should not be activists, but that’s exactly what they were asking the courts to do for the Schiavo case. It’s a double standard.”

“Gay marriage does have a bearing on this issue,” said Sheedy. “They keep saying there are no teeth in living wills. If there isn’t legal recognition of the relationship in your life, it takes the teeth right out.”

For Morellet, the media focus on living wills and assisted suicide has been a blessing in disguise.

“I feel like sending a nice message to Tom DeLay,” the Republican majority leader of the House of Representatives, “and the president, because I would never had had this without their help with the Schiavo case. I really feel they shot themselves in the foot, because they thought they had a mandate from the electorate and from God, which is very subjective.”

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