As if you hadn’t heard, a gaggle of American conservatives is stridently charging that pending health care reform legislation will institute a mechanism for euthanizing selected members of the handicapped and elderly populations–that it would, in Sarah Palin’s formulation, establish “death panels.” It’s true that H.R. 3200, the bill that will eventually come before the House of Representatives, is still a work in progress. It has already been amended by three separate House committees, while two Senate committees are working on drafts of their own. All of the provisions to be included in the final bill are not yet known, but one thing is certain: There is not a single statement in the voluminous number of pages under study that contains the slightest consideration, no matter its remoteness, of death panels, euthanasia, or any such fearsome concept.
In reality, the legislation simply calls for the reimbursement of physicians who counsel patients on end-of-life decision-making–counseling that is already required by a 1990 law and that is now covered by many insurance plans. But the specifics of the present bill are irrelevant to the loony conversation the right has sparked during the August recess. After all, even if there were some provision before Congress that could conceivably be interpreted as establishing a “death panel,” centuries, if not millennia, of established medical ethics (in addition to existing U.S. law) would prevent its actualization. In the midst of this crucial debate on the future of health care, somehow, the proponents of the euthanasia talking point seem to have forgotten everything we know about the practice of medicine in America.