NYT, Washington Post Slammed For Debating Whether Criminals Should Receive Healthcare

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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Several legacy media outlets caught some heat on Twitter this week for their coverage of a heart transplant recipient.

David Bennett Sr. was the recipient of a groundbreaking pig heart transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center this week. The medical breakthrough was significant enough to warrant media coverage, but The Washington Post also decided to report on Bennett’s criminal history.

In 1988, Bennett stabbed Edward Shumaker seven times, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. Shumaker had a stroke in 2005 and died two years later, the Post reported.

“More than 106,000 Americans are on the national waiting list for an organ transplant, and 17 people die each day never receiving the organ they need,” the Post’s article about the transplant read. “In the face of such a shortage, it can seem unconscionable to some families that those convicted of violent crimes would be given a lifesaving procedure so many desperately need.”

It went on to explain that most doctors and medical experts disagree, and that criminal history is never a consideration for medical professionals in deciding who can receive care. But the fact that the dilemma was even posed as a legitimate debate by the Post sparked substantial backlash on social media.

“This is a … truly bizarre piece. As the multiple bioethicists quoted say, people deserve to receive necessary medical care regardless of their criminal record,” wrote Vox reporter Dylan Matthews. “But despite that, the whole rest of the piece exists for some reason!”

Dan Robitzski, a writer and editor at The Scientist, satirized the Post article with a headline of his own: “Should A Criminal Record Become a De Facto Death Sentence? Who’s To Say!”

Harvard Medical School assistant professor Adam Gaffney called the article “ludicrous” in a tweet. “The framing of this article gives credence to an unethical perspective that is completely devoid of validity: the notion that medical care should be rationed to criminals or past criminals or something,” he added.

Shani George, vice president of communications for The Washington Post, defended the piece in an email to the Daily Caller. “This is a complicated and compelling story that raises important issues,” she said. “We spoke with the victim’s sister, who had shared her anguish on social media, in addition to the transplant recipient’s son, the hospital and medical experts to help illuminate for readers the moral and ethical questions involved.”

The Post wasn’t the only outlet to wade into the debate and come out scathed. The New York Times ran a similar article, again quoting experts who unanimously agreed Bennett’s history shouldn’t disqualify him from care. But again, readers questioned why the Times even bothered to ask such an obvious question to begin with. (RELATED: REPORT: Hospital Staff Tried To Take Man Off Life Support. Judge Orders Them To Stop)

The New Republic columnist Natalie Shure tweeted the article, adding the comment “Lifesaving medical care isn’t a reward for being a good person you freaks.”

The Intercept’s Rachel Cohen called the Times’ framing an “abhorrent editorial choice.” Gaffney chimed in again, saying the Times had the same “goofy framing” as the Post.

Other media outlets, including the Associated Press, also faced criticism for reporting that focused on the ethics of giving a criminal a groundbreaking heart transplant. Some of the articles spent time later in the piece elaborating on the science behind the procedure itself, which was a first-of-its-kind. Others focused almost entirely on the ethical question. What they all had in common was being widely panned for introducing an apparent dilemma that nobody seemed to disagree on.