From ‘Death Panel’ To ‘Death Book,’ Conservatives Amplify ‘Health Reform Will Kill You’ Narrative

On August 18th, Jim Towey — director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to May 2006 — wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for distributing an end-of-life counseling booklet that “presents end-of-life choices in a way aimed at steering users toward predetermined conclusions, much like a political ‘push poll.’”

Towey argued that the Bush administration abandoned the 52-page work book, “Your Life, Your Choices,” because it reflected a bias towards ‘ending your life’, but Obama reinstated the publication. On Sunday, Towey appeared on FOX News Sunday to press his case:

The message they want to communicate, I think, is if you have a stroke, or if you have a coma situation that somehow your life has lost a little value and it may not be worth living anymore….the VA has been using this, a new directive just came out in July, urging providers to refer patients to it.

Watch it:

The book’s message, as its title suggests, is open to interpretation and Towey — who has a competing end-of-of life booklet — is certainly entitled to disagree with the publication’s particular approach to end-of-of life counseling. In fact, the VA is currently reviewing the publication. But in making his case, Towey and by extension Chris Wallace, fudged the facts. As Jed Lewison points out at Daily Kos, “despite Fox’s claim that the guide encourages assisted suicide and euthanasia, it is solely focused on helping veterans determine what type of care they wish to receive if they should ever become incapable of making their wishes known. The guidebook specifically makes clear that it has nothing to do with assisted suicide, which is illegal.”


The Bush administration referenced the book on the VA website from February 2001 through December 2008. In July 2009 the Obama administration made “a minor update to a small portion of the Bush directive and had nothing to do with the guidebook.” Thus, “there’s no truth to Fox’s claim that Pres. Obama gave new life to a guidebook killed off by Bush,” Lewison concludes.

Towey spread his myth (or personal pet peeve) by wrapping the story in an already-established (false) narrative — “when the government can steer vulnerable individuals to conclude for themselves that life is not worth living, who needs a death panel?,” he asked — and by Sunday he was explaining himself to an all-to-eager Chris Wallace. It’s a familiar template. Betsy McCaughey, Sally Pipes, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Scott, and now Jim Towey have all mastered the art of perverting a single kernel of truth into a sensational story about an administration’s lust for euthanasia. While the administration is unable to rally around a single health care bill — since no one bill exists — opponents can freely cherry pick provisions and place the entire pro-reform movement on the defensive.