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Marriage debate obscures Washington domestic partnerships

With the upcoming election, Washington state finds itself embroiled in an ongoing debate over same-sex marriage. The heated arguments sometimes obscure the fact that the state already does have a domestic partnership registry that confers some of the same rights as marriage.

A recent television advertisement made by Washington United for Marriage features a gay couple's struggles with equality in a hospital setting. The ad portrays a Seattle resident speaking of her daughter and her daughter's partner, and their battle with one partner's brain cancer. Because the same-sex couple cannot legally marry, the narrator explains that members of the hospital staff did not call one partner to report the other partner's seizure, because only marriage guarantees such a call. The ad does not mention Washington's current domestic partnership law that extends to domestic partners like the two women in the ad.

Washington's domestic-partnership law was established in 2007, and attempts to afford many of the same rights that are granted to married couples to those in domestic partnerships. These includes health-insurance coverage for partners, the right to visit each other in the hospital, or make medical decisions on one another's behalf. Domestic partnerships also involve some of the same legal issues as marriage, including issues related to divorce.

In addition to Washington's domestic partner registry, federal rules require hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding, to grant visitation to gay partners of patients, regardless of whether they are in a registered domestic partnership.

With the upcoming election, the debate is likely to intensify. While the law may soon change, it is important for Washington residents to understand the possibilities and parameters of the current domestic partner registry.

Source: Seattle Times, "Truth Needle: Gay-marriage ad fails to mention rights granted to domestic partners," Lornet Turnbull, Sept. 26, 2012

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