Search This Blog

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Diane Rehm and the New York Times are a Problem

On March 14 the New York Times editorial board published "Offering a Choice to the Terminally Ill". Link: As expected, the NYT editorial board is in favor of assisted suicide legislation and staunchly supports Diane Rehm and the advocacy group Compassion and Choices (once known as the Hemlock Society). The NYT editorial is boiler plate pro assisted suicide rhetoric. The editorial could have been written by any news agency and this is not just disappointing but indicative of the way Compassion and Choices has dominated the discourse associated with the end of life. Two things struck me reading the NYT editorial. First, the adoption of Compassion and Choices phrases. The NYT did not refer to assisted suicide legislation but rather "so-called aid in dying bills". Such proposed legislation was described as "a humane option". Moreover, the NYT argues law makers should consider "how successfully and responsibly the law has been carried out in Oregon". Ignored was the experience of Randy Stoup and many others. Stoup was an uninsured Oregon resident unable to pay for chemotherapy. The Oregon state health plan would not cover chemotherapy but would pay the cost of physician assisted suicide. Second, and most problematic, is the NYT adoption of Compassion and Choices rhetoric. In an effort to undermine opponents of assisted suicide as being cold and uncaring the NYT noted Rehm's terminally ill husband "only option for ending the suffering was to stop eating and drinking. Physicians in most states, including Maryland, where he lived, are barred from helping terminally ill patients who want to die in a dignified way". The key here is how does one define "dignified". And more to the point, a patient, any patient in fact, can accept or refuse treatment. If one wants to die with "dignity" however it is perceived a patient can already do that by directing their own health care. I suggest all people read various forms of the Patient Bill of Rights. People have the right to fair medical treatment and the guarantee of autonomy over their health care. The NYT emotional ploy that "Health care providers in states where assisted suicide is illegal face wrenching choices when dying patients ask them for help" is grossly misleading. Health care providers are specifically tasked to respect and follow the autonomous decisions patients make. Those choices include tacitly hastening the end of life if a person chooses. A person with cancer can choose to not receive life extending chemotherapy for instance. A person can choose to not receive life sustaining anti-biotics. Examples abound when one factors in serious illness, disability and advanced age.

What bothered me the most about the NYT editorial was whole sale acceptance of a Compassion and Choices framework about the end of life that defies logic and distorts the politics associated with assisted suicide legislation. According to the NYT, "Ms. Rehms said she and her husband had long ago agreed they would help each other die if either was in growing distress from a terminal illness. Her inability to help him die humanely is a situation no spouse should have to face". I am stunned the NYT would stoop this low and be so obviously manipulative. What is over looked is Diane Rehm's long standing support for assisted suicide and association with Compassion and Choices. To suggest that Diane Rehm is a paragon of virtue and neutral observer is wildly wrong. Rehm is the public voice of NPR, her radio show is nationally broadcast, she has an estimated 2.6 million listeners and is closely associated with Compassion and Choices that advocates for VSED (voluntary suspension of eating and drinking), the method of death for her husband. Rehm has also been subject of criticism from the NPR's ombudsman who pointed out Rehm has been attending fund raising dinners for Compassion and Choices and has likely raised millions of dollars for the organization. Diane Rehm is far from objective. The same can be said about me. I am a member of Not Dead Yet, a grass roots organization opposed to assisted suicide (I am also on the Not Dead Yet Board). The difference between Rehms and myself is I am above board about my affiliation and bias. Before I give a talk that might remotely relate to assisted suicide I explicitly state my opposition to assisted suicide legislation and bias. To the best of my knowledge Rehms is not transparent in her bias. Elizabeth Jensen was quoted in the Washington Post that in her view "Rehm's participation as a celebrity guest of sorts at fundraising dinners for an organization that does extensive political lobbying, as compelling as her personal story is and as careful as she is being, is a step too far for someone associated with NPR." Link: Rehm's support of assisted suicide has been evident for decades. What is new as I perceive it is her move to become a key figure in advocating for assisted suicide as well as a leading fundraiser. Rehms efforts are not exactly a secret: the Washington Post featured an article about Rehm entitled "NPR Host Diane Rehm Emerges as Key Voice in the Right to Die Debate." Link: In the Washington Post story Rehm's noted she was well aware she was a journalist and as such she must be careful. "As strongly as I feel, I don't want to use the program to proselytize my feelings. But I do want to have more discussions about it because I feel its so important". I agree assisted suicide and more generally end of life issues need to be discussed. I do not think, however, Rehms, given her strong support of assisted suicide can do her job as as an unbiased journalist. When the subject is discussed on her radio show her bias is obvious. Opponents to assisted suicide do appear on her radio show but are given short shrift at best.

In response to criticism, not mentioned in the NYT editorial, Rehm has agreed to scale back her efforts in what Michael Rosenwald described as the "right to die debate". Exactly what does this scaling back involve? In my opinion not much. According to Rosenwald, Rehms will appear at two more sold out fund raisers. Rehm is not modifying her words. Rehms was also quoted recently as stating assisted suicide (my words) "should be a a right for me and should have been a right for my husband". Such a declarative statement is not what I would expect to ever hear from a supposedly unbiased journalist.

Rehms is in my estimation a fierce advocate for assisted suicide and is attempting to build on the wildly successful Compassion and Choices Brittany Maynard public relations campaign launched last year (Maynard's husband does fundraising for Compassion and Choices as well). As a Compassion and Choices advocate Rehms is aware of the importance of language I already referred to as rhetoric. Rehms refers to the right to die debate rather than assisted suicide. Rehms never uses the word suicide because as the Washington Post noted "Public opinion on the issue depends on how it is described, according to Gallup, which has found strong support for doctors helping patients end their lives by some painless means but a far slimmer majority favor assisting the patient to commit suicide. Not surprisingly, groups such as Compassion and Choices, studiously avoid using the word suicide." Link:

Why has Rehms views changed to include such strident support of assisted suicide legislation? Tim Graham at Newsbusters baldly stated" "Rehm is mad her husband died when she was not present. It was not then just his right to die, but her preference that he die exactly when she wanted it. She spent the night with him, and in the morning she went home for a shower. Then she received the call--come fast, he's slipping away. She missed his death by 20 minutes. She is still angry about that. If he could have planned his death, she and his family would have been there. Thats all I keep thinking about, she said. Why can't we make this more peaceful and humane. In a long interview in her office Rehm asserted I feel the way that John had to die was totally inexcusable. It was not right. She also said Kevorkian was before his time. He was too early. The country wasn't ready. Link:

I keep thinking of two words--peaceful and humane. All humans should die this way--at peace and in a humane way. Assisted suicide is not the answer. Indeed, it is an extreme legislative initiative for a social problem. It reminds me of the Ashley Treatment controversy. Doctors in surgically altering Ashley X resorted to an extreme medical solution for a social problem. My suggestion is not exciting nor will it raise money like Rehms or incite angry and heated debate. Why don't we enter into a national discussion about end of life issues. Better yet, I implore people to discuss end of life issues with their family, siblings, spouse and loved ones. If we as a society do this I would suggest many would die at peace in a manner of their choosing.