An advertisement for a trip to Hawaii in 2022

It was Sarah Palin who got the most attention for the false assertion that the health-care reform bill being debated in Congress would create “death panels” to encourage euthanasia of the elderly and infirm, but it apparently was a stalwart of the Christian right that gave her the inspiration.

And now the health-care reform debate has also become a debate over the ethical Christian response to health care, and a debate over which Christians are telling the truth.

Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008 who recently resigned as the governor of Alaska, got widespread attention when she posted the “death panel” charge on her Facebook page.

Palin, however, is far from the only one who has been spreading the notion that the health-reform bill would lead to the government’s making life-and-death decisions about individuals.

Earlier this summer, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican who represents North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, charged that the legislation “would put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.” Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke against “a government program that’s going to pull the plug on Grandma.” Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York whose later-discredited charges helped sink the Clinton health-reform effort in the 1990s, resurfaced with similar assertions. The claim, along with others about government-funded abortions, gained traction on Fox News, right-wing radio talk shows and on blogs and forwarded e-mails.

The charge has been loudly raised at many of the demonstrations and sometimes-raucous town-hall meetings that have marked the August congressional recess.

The claim has been discredited by such organizations as The Associated Press and FactCheck.org as well as by many mainstream newspapers and other news organizations. When pressed, those who spread the idea of “death panels” usually cite Page 425 of the House version of the health-care bill. It does require Medicare to pay for counseling sessions for seniors who want advice about living wills, health-care powers of attorney, do-not-resuscitate orders and other end-of-life decisions. It does not, however, advocate suicide or euthanasia, nor does it require seniors to attend such sessions.

Apparently, the distorted claims can be traced to a set of talking points issued by the Liberty Counsel, a right-wing religious organization associated with the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The Institute for Southern Studies, with headquarters in Durham, N.C., has reported that the talking points, released on July 29, include references to Page 425 with comments like “some in the administration have already discussed rationing health care for the elderly” as well as references to “mandatory end-of-life planning” and “guiding you in death.”

After fact-checking the talking points against the bill, Facing South, the Institute for Southern Studies’ online magazine, concluded that “… the Liberty Counsel’s talking points appear to have been assembled by someone who is either only barely literate or who simply scanned the document for language that could be twisted to serve their own propaganda purposes, with little regard for what the legislation actually says.”

The battle heated up on Aug. 19 when President Obama participated in a teleconference with an estimated 140,000 people from more than 30 religious denominations and organizations. Moderate and progressive religious leaders organized the call.

During the call, which was widely reported by news organizations, Obama spoke of the “death panel” charges as “an extraordinary lie” and said that some of the opponents of health-care reform are “bearing false witness.”

Those comments sparked counter-charges on right-leaning blogs that Obama is the one “bearing false witness.” Some critics say that they believe that the language in the legislation is purposely vague to hide intentions to promote abortion, ration health care and deny expensive treatment for the elderly.

During the teleconference, Obama spoke of the role of religious organizations in the civil-rights movement and the push for programs such as Medicare. The distortions, he said, are being put forward “to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation – that is that we look out for one another, that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper.” That obligation, he said, includes making sure that all Americans can afford health care.

Within hours, David Brody, the White House correspondent for CBN News, part of the Christian Broadcasting Network founded by Pat Robertson and the production company for The 700 Club, called the president’s “false witness” remark “a slap down” of conservative evangelical groups. The health-care debate among religious groups, he said, is now about which is more important: social justice and morality as expressed in Matthew 25 or fighting abortion and protecting those who face end-of-life issues.

That, apparently, is how the battle is being framed among some religious groups even though “death panels” and promotion of abortion are not found in the bill under discussion.

Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.

Share This