Paul Greenberg

They were supposed to be gone. They were supposed never to have existed. Remember the foofaraw over the part of ObamaCare that was going to have Medicare finance, uh, consultations about end-of-life treatment? They soon were dubbed death panels. The name stuck, and every time advocates of the idea derided it -- untrue! fictional! absurd! wholly imaginary! -- they only gave it more currency.

Which term do you prefer, end-of-life counseling or death panels? It makes quite a difference when discussing the issue. Because when it comes to a political conflict, vocabulary remains the Little Round Top of every engagement, the strategic height that determines the outcome of the battle. And any mention of death tends to, well, kill off enthusiasm for a proposal. Whether we're talking death panels or the death tax. (Its advocates much prefer to speak of the estate tax even if it's the same thing.) Why be blunt? Especially if it's going to cost your side of the debate votes.

Awkward facts must be sidestepped, euphemisms invented. The way abortion has become Choice. Names count; what a proposal is called may determine whether it ever gets into law. And so the death panels/end-of-life consultations had to be dropped from the final version of ObamaCare, which goes by an official euphemism of its own: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) of 2009. And its Section 1233 raised concerns that the patient might be protected to death.

At the least the controversial section was sure to produce a whole new para-medical sub-specialty. For where there's a Medicare payment, payees are bound to spring up. (In economicspeak, this is called incentivizing.) What do you think the practitioners of this new art/science would be called? Nothing very precise, one can be sure. Preferably something long and latinate, a term that softens the hard edges of its meaning, something high-toned, even classical. How about thanatopsists?

You can almost see the new occupation being plugged into every top-flight medical center's table of organization. ("Thanatopsy? It's in Annex B on Level II. You'll have to take the elevator to the main floor, cross the parking lot, go through the underground garage, enter the red door and get off on Blue Level. It's simple. Just follow the signs. Be sure to bring your parking ticket, photographic ID, proof of insurance, medical records, list of pharmaceuticals, and....")

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.