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April 22/29, 1998

Deciding Life and Death in the Courtroom: Debate and Clarification

Author Affiliations

Margaret A.WinkerMD, Senior EditorIndividualAuthorPhil B.FontanarosaMD, Senior EditorIndividualAuthor

JAMA. 1998;279(16):1259-1261. doi:10-1001/pubs.JAMA-ISSN-0098-7484-279-16-jac80007

To the Editor.—The article by Mr Gostin1 contains an error that should be corrected. The article says, referring to a California case, "In Barber, for instance, two physicians were convicted of murder for terminating life support at a patient's request, only to have the conviction vacated on appeal." Apparently, this statement was made to demonstrate that physicians' fear of legal action against them for terminating treatment was not entirely unjustified in the 1970s and 1980s. The statement is incorrect for 2 reasons: The patient in that case, Clarence Herbert,2,3 underwent a routine surgical procedure from which he emerged in a permanently comatose condition. Herbert's family alleged that the treating physicians had told them that Herbert was brain dead. He was not and continued to breath after the respirator was removed with the family's consent. Two days later, the family agreed to the removal of intravenous nutrition and hydration, and Herbert died. The patient never requested the removal of life support, but his family agreed to it after receiving questionable information. This set of circumstances makes this far from the typical withholding-treatment case.