West Side Split on Medical Decisions

Glick, O’Donnell square off against Gottfried on pending Assembly measure

An op-ed by Daily News editorial page writer Bill Hammond concerning a state Assembly measure aimed at clarifying medical decision-making authority in the case of New Yorkers too incapacitated to make their own choices has opened up a public feud among three West Side Democrats, two of them gay.

The bill, championed by Chelsea Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, was first proposed 13 years ago, but languished due in large measure to the opposition of the state Catholic Conference of Bishops unhappy about legislation that codified procedures related to ending life support for people beyond hope of meaningful recovery. Attention to the issue was revived last spring when the nation watched in horror as Florida Governor Jeb Bush led a right-wing effort to deny Terri Schiavo’s husband the authority to end life support for his wife who had been in a persistent vegetative state for more than a decade.

Hammond characterized the New York measure as a humane no-brainer and castigated two other legislators—Daniel O’Donnell and Deborah Glick, the only two gay legislators in the Assembly—for holding up the bill. Those two Democrats are concerned, first, that the bill says that those making medical decisions should “consider the impact of treatment decisions on the fetus” and, second, that it fails to make clear that the domestic partner of an incapacitated individual has the same rights to make decisions as a spouse.

In an interview with Gay City News, Glick argued that the language about the fetus could start the state on the slippery slope toward recognizing the rights of a fetus separately from a woman’s prerogative, could lead to medical decisions at odds with the incapacitated woman’s health interests, and could be grounds to challenge the decisions made by her health care surrogate.

Hammond charged that the measure “is being held hostage by pro-choice and gay rights purists in the Assembly.”

Glick contacted this newspaper to voice her displeasure with how her position and O’Donnell’s had been characterized. She said it was no accident that Hammond pointed out that pro-choice advocacy groups do not oppose the measure and focused his ire on herself and O’Donnell.

“Notice, he doesn’t go after choice, he goes after Gick and O’Donnell,” Glick said. “I think it is homophobic.”

Glick charged that, after initially agreeing to amend the bill to specify that domestic partners have the same footing as spouses, Gottfried backed down in order to win the support of the Catholic Conference late in last year’s session. That was when the fetus language was incorporated as well, she said.

But Glick went further in her critique of Gottfried, saying he and other advocates for the bill, chief among them the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), “fomented” the hit piece by Hammond.

O’Donnell echoed Glick’s charges of hardball politics.

“This is a full court press on behalf of the people who want this done right away,” he told Gay City News. “Last Wednesday, the coalition met in Gottfried’s office and I know that because there was a sign on his door and on Friday Hammond first called me. You do the math.”

“I am very tired of Dick Gottfried playing the best friend of the gay community at home when he’s constantly undermining the gay elected officials in Albany,” Glick charged.

Gottfried, who has a decades-long record of leadership on LGBT and AIDS issues and was the first Albany legislator to introduce a same-sex marriage bill, sounded taken aback by hearing those comments, but did not swallow the bait.

“I am not interested in engaging in that kind of dispute,” he told Gay City News. “I don’t think it’s for me to discuss whether I have or have not worked hard in Albany on behalf of the LGBT community. I think I would leave that to leaders of the community.”

Gottfried did speak to the substance of the policy disagreements and to his own quibbles with Hammond. Acknowledging that the Catholic Conference has effectively blocked action by the Republican Senate for more than a decade and that it opposes gay partner recognition in the bill, he nonetheless insisted that efforts have been made to accommodate Glick’s concerns by specifically mentioning the rights of domestic partners, but she has failed to respond on that point.

On the matter of the language about the fetus, Gottfried said he first crafted that language more than a decade ago to appease Catholic Conference concerns, but that before he showed it to anyone he had it reviewed by Donna Lieberman, a longtime choice advocate who now heads the NYCLU. Asked if the risk of eroding the right to choose concerned either of them, Gottfried responded, “not in the slightest,” arguing the privacy of the woman’s helath is specifically guaranteed in the bill.

Lieberman did not respond to a request for comment.

In a letter to the Daily News, Gottfried took issue with Hammond’s criticisms of Glick and O’Donnell.

“I strongly object to how he characterizes the concerns of some of my colleagues who oppose the bill,” he wrote. “They believe that one part of the bill does not give full recognition to domestic partners as ‘family’ and that another clause has an anti-choice taint. While I believe they are wrong on both counts, their concerns are important. I would not sponsor the bill if I thought they were right.”

Gottfried and Glick challenged each other’s account of who has more allies in this struggle. After mentioning Lieberman, Gottfried noted that major pro-choice groups have not spoken out against the measure. Glick, in turn, pointed out that he has no memos of support from them either. Indeed, Bob Jaffe, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice New York, would only say, “We take no position. We neither support nor oppose the bill.” Gottfried said that NARAL told him that was because “no choice issues are raised by the bill,” but that is not a statement NARAL would make to Gay City News.

Glick said that the fetus language made her female Democratic colleagues in the Assembly “livid,” while Gottfried maintained that a number of his co-sponsors are strongly pro-choice Democratic women.

Gottfried said that his understanding was that both Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the Empire State Pride Agenda support the measure, but Joe Tarver, an ESPA spokesman, would only go so far as to say, “We are aware of changes that could improve the bill and we are looking at them and working with legislators on them.”

Gottfried and other proponents of the bill have argued that the time is well past for this kind of reform in medical decision-making in New York. Glick and O’Donnell pointed out that New York will likely have a Democratic governor—Eliot Spitzer—next year and could have a Democratic majority in the Senate as well. A better bill could be crafted and passed quickly then, they said.

If a bill moves forward this year, it is unclear if there is time and good will enough to get these three West Side Democrats back on the same side.