GOP is spinning euthanasia scare

As the battle lines formed around the Democrats' health care reform legislation, I expected Republicans to throw everything they had against it. But I didn't expect them to sink so low as to claim that under Obamacare, ailing grannies would be killed off as soon as they become too expensive to care for.

But there was House Minority Leader John Boehner and Rep. Thad McCotter of Michigan issuing a statement that warned of "a more permissive environment for euthanasia, mercy-killing and physician-assisted suicide."

Seniors, it was suggested, would be forced to sit down with a bureaucrat to determine upfront how to end their lives. Check here if you wish to be euthanized. Check here to refuse food and water. We'll call you when your number is up.

What Boehner and McCotter were referring to was a provision in the health care reform bill that would extend Medicare coverage for one end-of-life consultation every five years. Note: it would cover, not mandate, such consultations if patients chose to have them.

Most people caring for loved ones who are growing old and infirm will understand the benefits of such consultations, as they ask patient and family to ponder things most of us would rather avoid: Who will make decisions about your medical care if you are unable? How do you feel about being fed with a tube if you cannot swallow and are expected never to regain the ability? Will you want to be sedated to control pain? Is there any medical condition that would cause you to agree to a do-not-resuscitate order?

By discussing these questions, individuals and their loved ones gain power and control over their health care. Obviously, these are personal decisions people would be wise to make while they are mentally and physically able.

But that's not how this one was spun. Republicans saw a chance to demagogue and jumped in with both feet. "Euthanasia" splashed across Internet headlines. Talk radio and cable TV lit into the "controversy" with aplomb.

The original propagator of this lie is one Betsy McCaughey, a former New York state lieutenant governor who is infamous for her tendentious takedown in the pages of The New Republic of the Clinton health care reform bill in 1993.

In columns and interviews with gullible hosts, McCaughey preached that under the proposed bill, end-of-life consultations would be mandatory, which is patently not true. She warned ominously in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column that this provision would "pressure the elderly to end their lives prematurely."

On one level, this scare-mongering strategy is simply farcical. It smacks of the circus around Terri Schiavo. Remember her? Isn't it funny how you don't hear any Republicans recall her lost cause anymore? They turned her suffering -- or nonsuffering, as the case may be -- into tabloid fodder, a cause for congressional pontification, but in the end they made fools of themselves. The public wasn't buying what they were peddling.

End-of-life issues are complicated. They are entwined with the fundamental question of what life is. For some, upholding and honoring the "sanctity of life" means keeping people alive even in a persistent vegetative state. For others, including myself, other factors, such as quality of life and, yes, the costs to maintain a pulse and breathing even without brain function, need to be weighed.

Beliefs about how life should end for the old and sick aren't that easy to peg, even for seasoned culture warriors on the right. Guns 'n' gays, this ain't. It's a complex issue that will continue to challenge us all as the baby boomer generation approaches old age and death. And if Republicans want to turn it into a moralistic Punch and Judy show, they do so at their peril.