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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Schiavo Saga and “Death Panels”

At HuffPo today, Sam Stein explores an irony that I’ve also been thinking about: many of the very conservatives who are ventilating claims that health care reform will interject the federal government into end-of-life decisions–with or without “death panels”–were hell-bent on Congress dictating an end-of-life decision in the infamous Terri Schiavo case in 2005:

Some of the same conservative figures taking potshots at Democrats for wanting to fund voluntary discussions about end-of-life decisions between doctors and their patients were leading the charge four years ago to contravene the decision by Schiavo’s husband and guardian to remove the feeding tubes from his wife after she had spent 15 years in a vegetative state.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who this week declared that Obama was trying to set up a situation where the government would decide whether to pull the plug on grandma, missed the vote to give the government control over Schiavo’s fate. But he told reporters that he backed the measure.
“I support the effort to protect Terri Schiavo,” he said. “It’s the first case of its kind, a chance to choose life over death. I gave the option to life.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has also been highly critical of Obama’s health care agenda, told constituents in an online forum that he supported the government’s intervention into Schiavo’s life.

This isn’t just an amusing example of hypocrisy, however. It’s worth noting that both the demand for federal intervention in the Schiavo case, and the “death panel” smear, have largely emanated from the Right-to-Life movement (the latter via their most prominent spokesperson, Sarah Palin), which routinely suggests that legalized abortion will eventually lead to government-sponsored euthanasia. Indeed, though it hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the “death panel” talk, health reform opponents have often claimed (without any real evidence) that reform is intended to promote publicly-financed abortions as well as euthanasia.
The abortion-euthanasia connection matters because the people promoting the “death panel” meme are not, in fact, opposed to government intervention in end-of-life decisions, any more than they are opposed to government intervention in a woman’s decision whether to carry a pregnancy to term. They simply want the intervention to follow their own absolutist views about human life.
And just as right-to-life activists are forever trying to manufacture evidence that “liberals” in government are plotting to encourage, not simply permit, abortions, they are now manufacturing evidence that those same liberals are plotting to encourage or actually require euthanasia. It’s part and parcel of a political strategy aimed at denying that government can be neutral on “life,” and that decisions about “life” can be consigned to private decision-making.
So next time you hear a conservative talk about “death panels,” you might want to ask about Terri Schiavo, not as a “gotcha,” but to expose the highly interventionist thinking that motivates many of those who pose a defenders of individual and family rights against Big Government.
UPDATE: Since a commenter below, and then National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, have indicated they think I’m accusing conservatives of “hypocrisy” on end-of-life issues, I should make it clear this is not what I am saying. If I had to choose a negative adjective for those who wanted Congress to intervene in the Schiavo case and are now railing against “death panels,” it would be “disingenuous” rather than “hypocritical.” They are clearly appealing, with some success, to the large majority of Americans who didn’t favor the Schiavo intervention (many of whom also don’t favor government bans on abortion), using anti-government rhetoric about interference with personal or family decisions that they don’t, actually, believe in. That’s more than a mite dishonest, if not hypocritical, and is reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s talk about her “choice” to carry to term a child with a severe disability–a choice she would deny to other women.
Speaking of abortion, Ponnuru also suggests my claim that there’s “no real evidence” of health care reform legislative language providing for government funding of abortion is inaccurate. He makes a legitimate point; I should have probably used the term “no compelling evidence.” But as I’ve argued elsewhere, those who claim they are opposing health care reform because of this or that provision in this or that bill seem to have forgotten everything they’ve ever learned about the legislative process, including the ability to amend bills. There’s little or no chance that a health reform bill will get to the President’s desk without a ban on abortion funding.

3 comments on “The Schiavo Saga and “Death Panels”

  1. Kevin Clark on

    It’s not really a proper characterization to say that people who wanted Terri Schiavo to be kept alive were for government intervention while those who wanted her to be taken off food and water opposed government intervention. In fact, the government had already intervened by the fact that a Florida court previously ruled that she would want to die rather than live as she was living. (The Florida court decision makes fascinating reading, by the way.) The intervention at the end of her life was asking for a do-over on the federal level of what had already been done on the state level. Now, you could reasonably make a federalism argument about that, but not really a non-intervention argument.
    I don’t doubt that most people would prefer to see end-of-life decisions made by the family rather than by the government, but that is certainly not absolute. Would those who oppose government intervention say that the Florida court should never had heard the Schiavo case in the first place? I think most people would say that if someone is imminently dying, food and water can be withheld since they will do the person no good. The question in the Schiavo case was whether food and water could be withheld from someone who was not dying. Do people really absolutely oppose government intervention in all cases where a family wishes to withhold food and water from a non-terminal handicapped person? I would find that difficult to believe.

  2. edkilgore on

    I’m afraid you may have missed the point of my post, which is that the Schiavo parallel is illuminating not because it shows hypocrisy, but because it shows “death panel” protesters don’t, unlike large majorities of Americans, actually oppose government intervention in end-of-life decisions. There’s some dishonesty involved in the exploitation of anti-government sentiment on this subject, but not really hypocrisy.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Kevin Clark on

    Don’t you think that there is a logical difference between the government intervening to save someone’s life and the government intervening to take someone’s life? Is it really hypocrisy to support one and not the other?


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