Gop Rides Wave Of Ire

From Talk Radio To Twitter: Whispers About Euthanasia Quickly Rise To A Roar

Health Care Reform

The National Debate

August 16, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,

Rubin Sztajer left a German concentration camp alive, but he worries about surviving a government health care overhaul.

"I've been sentenced to death before by the Nazis," said the 84-year-old from Timonium. "I don't want to be sentenced again."

Seniors like Sztajer are fearful that government bureaucrats will block access to their medical care if President Barack Obama's plan becomes law. These concerns are being fed, in no small part, by an effective conservative assault on a relatively short provision that involves end-of-life counseling.

The notion that health care legislation would encourage life-shortening measures for the elderly or infirm - even government-assisted suicide - moved swiftly from Twitter feeds to accepted fact, repeated on Web sites and echoed by current and former elected officials. As a result, opponents succeeded in fashioning a wedge issue out of an idea that has been part of federal law since the 1991 Patient Self-Determination Act and supported in the past by both major parties.

The campaign launched shortly after House Democrats released their sweeping health overhaul measure on July 14.

Two days later, in a talk radio appearance, Betsy McCaughey of the conservative Hudson Institute attacked the measure's Advanced Care Planning provision. McCaughey, a former Republican lieutenant governor of New York who also helped derail Bill and Hillary Clinton's health care overhaul in 1994, described the House proposal as a "vicious assault on elderly people."

"The Congress would make it mandatory - absolutely require - that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner," she told former Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson on the show he started last spring on 125 radio stations.

In fact, there is no such requirement.

According to a sponsor of the provision, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the benefit is "completely voluntary." Medicare would reimburse doctors who consult with a patient about such matters as whether the patient would want to be hospitalized, receive antibiotics or have nutrition and hydration artificially administered.

Conservative radio, TV and Web sites helped promote the inaccurate claim.

Among the more unlikely sources of information: an out-of-work Phoenix-area blogger, Peter Fleckenstein, who lost his job at a real estate development company when the housing market crashed.

Using shorthand messages on Twitter, Fleckenstein scoured the House bill for days, relaying interpretations as he went. On July 20, he sent out "tweets" about pages 425 and 427: "Govt mandates program 4 order 4 end of life. The Govt has a say in how ur life ends."

Fleckenstein, who has said he has no expertise on health care issues, quickly became an authority for fellow conservatives.

Among those who passed along his analysis, as "Fleckman's" deconstruction went viral: a University of Dayton professor and the advocacy arm of Liberty University's law school, followed by an array of social, economic and religious conservative Web sites.

Larry Schweikart, a University of Dayton history professor, said in an interview that he couldn't remember the original source of the comments about the House bill that he "reposted" on (A link in his posting went to Fleckenstein's blog.) Opponents distributed printed copies of the line-by-line analysis at Maryland Democratic Senator Benjamin L. Cardin's town hall meeting in Towson last week.

Schweikart, who said he had read the bill, said he had no doubt that the legislation had a "euthanasia clause" and that government doctors will "encourage elderly people to get out of the way."

"In my view, it's going to be mandatory. I say the wording isn't there but the implication is clearly there," he added. "All you have to do is look at the record of government. It always, always, always expands its power."

Liberty Counsel, an arm of Liberty University's law school in Lynchburg, Va., posted Fleckenstein's work on its Web site. The religious legal organization said its Washington staff had reviewed, revised and adapted the analysis, obtained from a re-posting on, a popular conservative Web site.

In doing so, Liberty Counsel reinforced the conservative assault by amplifying misleading references.

Fleckenstein, referring to page 425, lines 17-19 of the House bill, wrote: "Govt will instruct & consult regarding living wills, durable powers of atty. Mandatory!" Liberty Counsel's version: "Government WILL instruct and consult regarding living wills and durable powers of attorney. Mandatory end-of-life planning!"

Through traditional channels, Republican politicians and other conservative commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, added their voices to the effort.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, on July 23, released a statement warning that it "may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia."

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