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Merrimack Valley

August 30, 2009

'They're coming for Grandma': Behind the death panel hysteria

It was an extraordinary, unprecedented moment in American history: the president of the United States, on stage in Portsmouth, N.H., trying to assure people that the government does not intend to kill their grandmothers.

And not everyone was convinced.

Few issues in the debate over health care reform have gotten Americans, to use President Obama's turn of phrase, "all wee-weed up" as has the idea that reform means "death panels" will determine who is worthy of treatment — and therefore, continued life.

Nowhere in any section of any of the health care bills before Congress will one find the phrase "death panel." Nor is there any suggestion that a governmental panel will issue rulings on life or death for a given patient.

But one notion that is in the House bill — government-funded end-of-life counseling — combined with the thinking of prominent bioethicists that some lives have greater value than others led critics to conclude that some government-directed limits on care to the elderly or infirm are possible.

The death panel furor exploded into American consciousness in early August when former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin used the phrase in a posting on her Facebook page.

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care," Palin wrote on Aug. 7. "Such a system is downright evil."

Palin's comment brought her immediate criticism as supporters of health care reform branded her statement an outrageous lie. But while conservative critics of reform, such as the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and National Review, agreed that the idea of 'death panels' is "over the top" and "hysteria," they noted there are legitimate questions about elements of the bill and the ideas of its architects that lead down similar paths.

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