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Robin Bernhoft, M.D.: Death law would turn family doctors into hit men

4:50 PM, Apr 25, 2015

As a retired liver and pancreatic cancer surgeon, I am appalled that California Senate Bill 128 is advancing. There are so many reasons we voted this idea down (as Proposition 161) back in 1992.

I call SB 128 "Personal Choice Meets Malpractice at the End of Life." Here are some problems, starting with choice.

Many studies show that patients follow their doctor's advice. Their quality of choice is only as good as their doctor's knowledge, and most doctors are simply not competent at treating pain or depression, which are the two big reasons terminally ill people want to die.

Sloan Kettering's Palliative Care Unit, for example, has had 100 percent success at giving back to terminal people their desire to live, by effectively managing their issues. In my experience, and in many studies, most well-intentioned family docs simply don't know how to do that. Follow their advice and you die because they don't know how to help. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say in computers.

So let's imagine two terminally ill people.

Patient No. 1 goes to Sloan Kettering or a palliative care specialist, regains the desire to live by having pain, depression and other problems managed effectively, and enjoys another six months, year or two years with his or her family. (The "six months left to live" bit is fiction, by the way; we have no idea how long a patient will live.)

Patient No. 2 sees a couple of family docs who are nice people but untrained in end-of-life care, and takes their recommended overdose. No time with family.

I have a big problem with disparities of that sort. Patient happiness is a huge value for me. If we can provide quality life we should do so, not deprive people of that option due to well-intentioned physician ignorance.

There's also the money issue. What is the cheapest form of end-of-life care? Death. Did you know the chief author and spokeswoman for the Oregon measure was vice president of a health insurance company? Why do you suppose an insurance company would be interested in this issue? Because they love humanity?

Does the potential for using death to ration care bother you? It does me. Many forms of managed care offer financial incentives to doctors to cut costs. You don't have to postulate monsters here, just doctors ignorant of effective options for supporting dying people's quality of life having financial incentives to give out death pills.

Regarding Oregon, since reporting of death cases is entirely voluntary, we have no idea how well the system is working up there. Nor will we in Washington, for the same reason. If there is abuse, it's not going to be reported without mandatory requirements, which, given medical secrecy, would not be enforceable.

We do know that in the Netherlands, from the attorney general's report, that over 20 percent of total deaths in that country are involuntary, caused by doctors without patient consent, despite very tight safeguards promising patient autonomy. Give docs the power to kill and some of us get a bit too enthusiastic.

There's also the family issue. Most people need to forgive, or be forgiven, by family members. It's part of the dying process. But in the Netherlands, it often doesn't happen and leaves the survivors with a burden the Dutch call the Post Euthanasia Syndrome.

Finally, back in the 1960s Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, did a study of doctor-assisted death. In every country where it was tried over the past centuries, it destroyed doctor-patient trust.

Let's not implement a bad idea here, a bad idea that will deprive a lot of people of quality life, and turn doctors into low-key hit men.

Californians voted down doctor-assisted death in 1992. We got it right back then.


Robin A. Bernhoft, M.D., of Ojai, is board certified in surgery and emergency medicine.

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The California Disability Alliance, which advocates for the health, independence, and community inclusion of persons with disabilities, opposes SB 128.

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The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), the longest running national cross-disability, grassroots organization run by and for people with disabilities, respectfully opposes Senate Bill 128.

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As Expected, Assisted Suicide Bill Passes Committee

But list of bill opponents grows - Silicon Valley Independent Living Center and Communities United in Defense of Olmstead say no to Assisted Suicide

(Sacramento, CA) – Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the controversial Senate Bill 128 (Monning, Wolk), the bill to legalize assisted suicide in California. Opposition testimony was delivered by Marilyn Golden, Senior Policy Analyst for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Tom Driscoll - a Stockton-based attorney who specializes in elder abuse and family law and a representative from the Association of Northern California Oncologists and Medical Oncology Association of Southern California.

While the bill passed its second committee, the list of those opposing assisted suicide continues to grow with the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center and Communities United in Defense of Olmstead joining disability rights organizations like The Arc CA, United Cerebral Palsy, Autism Self-Advocacy Network, California Foundation of Independent Living Centers and others opposing SB 128. 

In her testimony Marilyn Golden gave an example for why the very basic premise of a six-month "terminal" diagnosis makes SB 128 bad public policy. She testified that her colleague, "was diagnosed with ALS at age 18 and given 3-5 years to live. Six years later, the progression of his disease suddenly stopped and he is alive at age 77, with a wife, children, and retired from a successful career. He told me that if assisted suicide had been legal at the time, he would have used it, but is so happy to be alive."

Similar pieces of legislation have failed or been tabled this year in states like Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland. 


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