Access to marriage=Access to human dignity
The above equation is one thought I hope to explore during tomorrow night’s conversation with David Blankenhorn and Peter Steinfels. How might we build on this belief that access to marriage is synonymous with access to full humanity. Or, the converse, if we explicitly or implicitly believe that someone should not have access to marriage are we also saying that they do not have access to the fullness of human dignity? As someone who has supported the access of gays and lesbians to marriage for some time, I hope that we can be inspired by the relatively rapid shift in public opinion towards this civil rights issue and begin to think about other populations whom we explicitly or implicitly deny full access to marriage. For example, the elderly. I do not think that our current policies and practices of providing long term care nor our societal support and honor for family care-giving in general begins in a place that honors the marriages of older Americans, in part because many of our current policies treat the vulnerable old as a burden, as less than fully human.
Another population that comes to mind is the incarcerate and/or previously incarcerated. John Maki, of the John Howard Association, Illinois’ only prison watchdog agency, writes an insightful piece today at HuffPost on the current debates in Illinois on the current and future state of prison healthcare in a time when the prison population is and will be defined by long term chronic care conditions of inmates considered elderly at 50 plus years of age. He is looking at Illinois, but New Jersey and California have also been struggling with prison over-crowding and attempts at consolidation as well as trying to meet the specialized needs of an often mentally ill, aging, and generally infirm prison population.
“Apart from overseeing the care of its general population, IDOC also struggles to treat the growing number of inmates with special needs. For instance, over the past decade, Illinois’ elderly prison population grew by more than 300 percent, far outstripping increases in other age groups. While exact estimates vary and there is no Illinois-specific data, it is widely accepted that U.S. prisons and jails house more mentally ill people than psychiatric hospitals. Additionally, a 2010 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that 65 percent of the U.S. prison population meets the DSM IV medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction, though only 11 percent receive treatment.
These special populations and the costs associated with their care stem from decades of choices made by elected officials with the support of the public. Decisions to lengthen sentences, mandate harsher punishments for drug-based offenses, and close public mental health institutions have filled IDOC with inmates who are drug addicted, mentally ill, and growing older. As a consequence, state prisons have become de facto hospitals, asylums, drug treatments facilities, and retirement homes…
IDOC’s health care system is not just an issue for the state’s prisons. Every year, about 30,000 inmates leave IDOC to return to their communities. If the prison system is not able to meet its health care obligations, cities, counties, and the general public will inevitably pay a higher price when inmates are released, with increased transmissions of infectious diseases, emergency room visits, and higher recidivism rates…” Read more…
Now, granted, unlike with gays and lesbians we do not have outright laws against the elderly or the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated accessing marriage. However, I am inspired by the current movement towards marriage equality for gays and lesbians to think not only of how we explicitly discriminate against others but also how we implicitly and structurally create second-class citizens of our neighbors.