This minute, there are thousands of people by the bedside of a loved one who is in a hospital, offering their love and companionship. A statement Mitt Romney made about hospital visitations being a "privilege," not a "right," confirms to me that he doesn't have the capacity to put himself in other people's shoes (unless they're in his size and a gift from Sheldon Adelson).
Romney campaign adviser Bay Buchanan tried to sidestep her boss' callous position to Buzzfeed's Chris Geidnertried by pulling out the old federal-government-vs.-states'-rights debate. But let's put aside the issue of who should get to grant this right and just look at the issue of why any governmental institution would feel that it should be the one to grant the "privilege" of who can be by your side while you are in the hospital or care facility. The only person to decide that should be the patient and his or her loved ones.
That is precisely why President Obama put into place an executive order in 2010 that puts the decision in the patient's hands. Romney wants to eliminate it and give each state the authority of granting visitation rights, which would only serve to create another hodgepodge of inequality. Obama's memo couldn't have been more eloquent and empathetic: "There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. ... Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides." Gay and lesbian Americans are "uniquely affected" by relatives-only policies at hospitals, Obama said, and added that they "are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives -- unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."
I checked out what the legal difference is between a privilege and a right, and it's more complex than I thought. In its simpliest form, however, a privilege is something that's granted to a specific group of people by the state or another authority that gives them special entitlement. A right is an inherent, irrevocable entitlement held by all citizens or all human beings from the moment of birth, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If only Jefferson had added a mention of our God-given rights at the time of illness or death, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Perhaps our founding fathers felt it wasn't necessary and just assumed that any reasonable person would honor that most personal and critical of moments and welcome anyone who is willing to be there for a loved one.
Everyone, at some point in their lives, will be that patient in the hospital bed or that loved one sitting by their side. I know because I spent over three years in and out of the hospital dying from AIDS. I lost count of how many days, weeks and months I spent in the hospital during those years between 1993 and 1996, but I have never forgotten that most of them were spent with my husband, Joe, at my side -- and he wasn't just visiting me. There was a foldout sofa bed in my hospital room where he slept most nights. I have no doubt that his presence helped keep me alive.
I'm sure Gov. Romney has spent many nights by his wife Ann's hospital bedside as she battles multiple sclerosis, which makes his comments even more incomprehensible to me. The next time he finds himself in that position, I hope he doesn't have to hear a presidential candidate say to him that he's there not because it's his "right" but because it's a "privilege" that has been granted to him by the government.