Entry from August 14, 2009

“False ‘Death Panel’ Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots” claims the headline to an article by Jim Rutenberg and Jackie Calmes in today’s New York Times. “The stubborn yet false rumor that President Obama’s health care proposals would create government-sponsored “death panels” to decide which patients were worthy of living seemed to arise from nowhere in recent weeks.” Well not quite from nowhere, it seems. As more than one commentator has already pointed out, the “rumor” actually arose from — The New York Times itself. Odd that Mr Rutenberg and Ms Calmes, who suppose it’s all to do with the same rumor-mongers who wrecked the Clintons’ health care plan in 1993, didn’t get the memo. In an interview with the Times’s economics correspondent, David Leonhardt that was published in The New York Times Magazine back in May, the President observed that “the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 per cent of the total healthcare bill out here.”

At that point, Mr Leonhardt asked: “So how do you — how do we — deal with it?”

Here’s what the President said in reply:

Well, I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. It is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels. And that’s part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance.

If an “independent group that can give you [i.e. the government] guidance” in matters of whose lives are worth preserving and whose aren’t doesn’t amount to a death panel, I’d be interested to hear just how those who keep insisting that death panels are only a “stubborn yet false rumor” would differentiate it from one.

The President’s remarks came in the context of recounting a recent event from his own life:

When my grandmother got very ill during the campaign, she got cancer; it was determined to be terminal. And about two or three weeks after her diagnosis she fell, broke her hip. It was determined that she might have had a mild stroke, which is what had precipitated the fall. So now she’s in the hospital, and the doctor says, Look, you’ve got about — maybe you have three months, maybe you have six months, maybe you have nine months to live. Because of the weakness of your heart, if you have an operation on your hip there are certain risks that — you know, your heart can’t take it. On the other hand, if you just sit there with your hip like this, you’re just going to waste away and your quality of life will be terrible. And she elected to get the hip replacement and was fine for about two weeks after the hip replacement, and then suddenly just — you know, things fell apart. I don’t know how much that hip replacement cost. I would have paid out of pocket for that hip replacement just because she’s my grandmother. Whether, sort of in the aggregate, society making those decisions to give my grandmother, or everybody else’s aging grandparents or parents, a hip replacement when they’re terminally ill is a sustainable model, is a very difficult question.

You’d think that seasoned Times reporters would know enough to know that when a politician says the question of whether or not something is a sustainable model is a very difficult one, he means it’s not. Sustainable, that is. So it turns out that when, at the town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire the other day, Mr Obama denied what he, too, called the “rumor” about his intending to “pull the plug on grandma,” he was talking about his own grandma. True enough, he “would have paid out of pocket for that hip replacement just because she’s my grandmother.” That means it’s only the people who can’t afford to do that who will have to worry about the death panels. I hope that comes as a relief to you.

Yet, in truth, anyone less starry-eyed than the media about the President’s — or his congressional allies’ — health plan could see that death panels, like other forms of rationing, must be implied in it. Peter Singer also took to The New York Times Magazine a few weeks after the interview mentioned above to explain “Why We Must Ration Health Care.” Professor Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and apologist for animal rights, may be crazy, but he’s not so crazy as to suppose that, just because Obama-care is bound to be wonderful, it must mean we’re all going to get a blank check from the government for all the health care we want. Who, do you suppose, ever thought it did? Oh, right. The supine media, for whom any hint that their hero might not be on the point of ushering in the perfection of earthly health care systems, as of everything else, can only be a false rumor — no doubt spread by those same ill-natured, wacko conservatives who are disrupting town hall meetings around the land.

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