The Health-Care Lie Machine

GOP House members are claiming that government-mandated euthanasia is part of the Democrats’ health-care plan. Michelle Goldberg tracks down the source of the most outrageous myths.

If you are a connoisseur of conservative media, then you’ve probably heard that health-care reform threatens to lead us toward a totalitarian dystopia in which the government kills off the old and unfit.

The revelations began two weeks ago, when Betsy McCaughey, the former New York lieutenant governor, spoke on Fred Thompson’s radio show about the “vicious assault on elderly people and the boomer generation” in the House health-care bill. Congress, she said, would make it “ mandatory, absolutely required, that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner. How to decline nutrition, how to decline being hydrated, how to go into hospice care. And by the way, the bill expressly says that if you get sick somewhere in that five-year period… you have to go through that session again, all to do what’s in society’s best interests or your family’s best interests and cut your life short.”

One congressman said of his GOP colleagues, “Do they have somebody crank out the talking points for them, and they’re so marinated in them that they can’t separate truth from fiction?”

Soon, news of the impending systematic euthanasia of the aged was ricocheting around the right wing. On July 23, House Republican Leader John Boehner and his colleague Thaddeus McCotter released a statement charging that a provision in the health-care bill “may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia if enacted into law.” Speaking with Sean Hannity on Fox News last week, Dick Morris called the plan “creeping euthanasia.” The next day, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx stood on the floor of the House and said that the GOP’s plan was “pro-life because it will not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.” On July 29, The Washington Times editorialized, “Back on May 1, we warned you that President Obama's health-care proposals could lead to bureaucrats deciding when to ‘pull the plug’ on an individual's medical treatment. That awful day is drawing nearer.”

Given this nightmare vision, it’s not surprising that opponents of a health-care overhaul are far more energized than supporters. All over the country, angry crowds are shouting down congressional Democrats who are believed to support Obama’s health-care push. In Long Island, New York, Rep. Tim Bishop had to be escorted to his car by police after screaming protesters disrupted a community meeting. Right-wingers hung Rep. Frank Kratovil in effigy outside his Maryland office. Video of protesters swarming Rep. Lloyd Doggett at an Austin, Texas, grocery store on Sunday is all over the Internet.

Obviously, these protests aren’t exactly spontaneous. As Talking Points Memo and others have reported, they’re being orchestrated by Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, the same lobbyist-run groups behind the Tea Parties earlier this year. The Think Progress site has even obtained a memo from a volunteer with Tea Party Patriots, a group set up by FreedomWorks, on how to disrupt Democrats’ town-hall meetings and challenge their “socialist agenda.” “You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation,” it says. “Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early. … The purpose is to make him uneasy early on and set the tone for the hall as clearly informal, and free-wheeling.”

The fact that there’s central planning doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t also real grassroots rage and paranoia. Almost all successful protests, after all, are orchestrated by someone. An organizer, corporate or otherwise, can provide the plan and the infrastructure, but unless they’re actually paying demonstrators, people have to supply the passion themselves. And right now, the passion is with those who consider health-care reform to be a slippery slope toward Stalinism.

Heather Liggitt, a stay-at-home mother of two, helped mobilize the protest against Doggett. A member of Tea Party Patriots, Liggett said she heard that her congressman was going to be talking to people at the grocery store, and then sent out an email alerting others. No one instructed her to do so—the effort, she says, was truly grassroots. “I’ve never been politically active,” she says. “What spurred me was when I started to see the constitutional freedom and the chance of a future prosperity for my children going down the drain by the liberal agenda, I had to get involved.”

On the surface, it seems bizarre that there’s more street-level populist energy fighting against health-care reform than fighting for it. The insurance companies’ sadistic disregard for the health of those they purport to cover has been amply documented. If ever an issue called for individuals to take to the streets against corporate power, surely it should be the current health-care regime.

Fears that Obama wants to kill off the old are clearly groundless. (One wishes that went without saying, but such are our politics that it doesn’t.) The euthanasia canard rests on a deliberate misreading of a provision in the House plan that would let Medicare pay for patients to consult with doctors about their wishes should they become incapacitated. Originally, the provision was a standalone bill introduced by Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer and co-sponsored by Louisiana Republican Charles Boustany Jr., a cardiovascular surgeon.

Blumenauer thought the provision would be a bipartisan building block, because both Democrats and Republicans have had to face the challenge of divining the wishes of a dying loved one. “Some of the really touching, painful stories that were given in committee came from committee members themselves, not witnesses, including Republicans,” Blumenauer says. “I thought this is a way we can bring some people together.”

But even if it’s not true, the rhetoric of the anti-health-reform forces taps into broader right-wing ideological currents. For decades, the antiabortion movement has been railing against a “culture of death” that takes a cruelly utilitarian approach to human life. Conservatives have warned of oppressive federal power bent on threatening the liberties of gun-owning, God-fearing individuals. As Tom Frank wrote in What’s the Matter With Kansas, “Movement literature now abounds in lurid tales of the medical profession gone mad, of doctors giving the thumbs-up to infanticide and euthanasia, of abortionists trafficking in fetal body parts, and of deranged scientists manufacturing embryos from which stem cells can then be harvested.”

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Such fears are easily activated in the health-care debate, especially if one is already inclined to believe that Obama is a nascent totalitarian. Liggitt said she is convinced that the Democrats’ plan will result in a single-payer health-care system, and her conception of such systems is hellish. “What does happen in countries with single-payer health systems like Norway, a 50-year-old man who has been diagnosed with cancer is told he will go to the bottom of the list for treatment because he’s older and somebody in their 20s has a better success rate for survival than does he,” she says. “The 20-year-old may have a family or he may not. The 50-year-old most likely does have a family. You’re going to allow this gentleman’s family to go on without him because you couldn’t afford to pay for him.”

This is not how health care works in Norway, or any other European country. “I think you’re on firm ground in saying that this a myth,” says Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institute. “It’s fear of the unknown. When there is comprehensive reform, it rouses great anxiety and people fear the worst. They just assume the worst possible motives and the worst possible outcome.”

Despite its absurdity, politicians are being forced to spend time dealing with such misinformation. At Obama’s AARP town-hall meeting last week, a questioner said she’d heard that Medicare beneficiaries would be visited and “told to decide how they wish to die.” The notion of government-mandated euthanasia, says Blumenauer, is “rattling around. We’ve been getting phone calls in our office. It’s been on television. Talking heads treat it seriously so I have to treat it seriously.”

Blumenauer has been in Congress for 13 years, through the tail end Newt Gingrich’s reign and the whole of Tom DeLay’s. But the deliberate promulgation of this rumor, he says, “is an all-time low. It represents part of an effort by some people both in Congress and in the outside world to try and completely break down the legislative process. Taking over town meetings, shutting people down—it's all about hijacking the process and trying to get on television by being outrageous.”

He’s still not sure if his Republican colleagues actually believe their own rhetoric. “You hear them repeat it enough and you just wonder what’s going on,” Blumenauer says. “Do they have somebody crank out the talking points for them, and they’re so marinated in them that they can’t separate truth from fiction? Or is it that truth has become such a relative term that it no longer makes a difference?”

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the Worldand Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.