Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: Richard Seltzer MD in hot water over something he wrote. ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Richard Seltzer MD in hot water over something he wrote.
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: pamelamd-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 17 Feb 2004 06:40 PST
Expires: 18 Mar 2004 06:40 PST
Question ID: 307611
Richard Seltzer is--rather was--a surgeon and a writer.  He wrote an
essay about assisting an "assisted suicide" of a young AIDS patient. 
He got into some legal trouble for this--it was, I believe--in the
late 1980s early 90s.  What was the case about and what ultimately
Subject: Re: Richard Seltzer MD in hot water over something he wrote.
Answered By: pafalafa-ga on 17 Feb 2004 14:51 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello majortom-ga,

Dr. Richard Selzer (spelled without a "t") is a well-known surgeon and
medical writer.  In two of his works -- a book and a lengthy article
in the NY Times, he writes about his often painful experiences as a
doctor, including the incidences you referr to -- being sued for
medical malpractice, and being asked to assist an AIDS patient with

However, the two events are not directly related -- the legal troubles
he encountered in the malpractice suit was not related to the AIDS
patient's request for assistance in a suicide.

Both events are discussed in Selzer's 1992 book, "Down form Troy:  A
Doctor Comes of Age".  You can see a brief mention of both events at
this site about Selzer's book:

Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age
by Richard Selzer 

William Morrow; (July 1992)
"....Selzer also details his life in medicine, describing a wrenching
malpractice suit and an encounter with an AIDS patient who sought help
with suicide. .."


Selzer's story of the moral dilemma's regarding the AIDS patient's
request for assistance was made into a play, "A Question of Mercy". 
There is a description of the play, and it's relation to Seltzer's
writings, here:

"Playwright David Rabe adapted A Question of Mercy from an essay based
upon the true-life experience of Dr. Richard Selzer, who found himself
faced with the moral dilemma of mercy killing a decade ago. This play
raises many difficult and powerful questions: Does a man, living
without hope of relief, have the right to take his own life? Does he
have the right to ask for assistance? How do loved ones respond? "


A more extended discussion of the play, and it's relationship to
Selzer's writing, can be found at this link to Citypaper:

"The script was inspired by an article in the New York Times Magazine
written by Dr. Richard Selzer. More a diary entry than an essay, it
records his experience of being asked to "intervene" and help an AIDS
patient to commit suicide. The doctor, whose point of view governs the
play, is caught in a variety of moral and emotional questions, of
which the question of mercy is only one. (The essay forms the last
section of Selzer's memoir, Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age.)

When I ask Rabe what it was about the article that inspired him to
write the play, he replys that he was deeply moved by the account of a
man's decision to end his life (and, more specifically, by an event I
can't reveal since it is the climax of the play)..."


The malpractice case was the subject of a 1990 article by Selzer in
the New York Times Magazine.  Copyright prohibits me from quoting
extensively from the article here, but I have provided some brief
excerpts to give you the flavor of the case and of the article.

The New York Times
September 23, 1990 

Trial and Tribulation
By Richard Selzer

...In February of that year, two years after my retirement from
surgery, I too was ordered to stand trial for malpractice. But while
George Laszlo had stood naked in the gale, I was well padded against
any damage. (Though I had never been sued before, I had several
million dollars worth of medical malpractice insurance.) Nor did I
kill myself, although the thought crossed my mind...

...Here is what happened: Eight years ago I performed a
cryohemorrhoidectomy upon a woman. It was what some might term minor
surgery, but I am well aware that a minor operation is one that is
done on someone else. Cryohemorrhoidectomy involves no cutting or
suturing, but rather the application of an extremely cold metal probe
to excessive internal hemorrhoidal tissue in order to destroy it, much
as one uses extreme heat to cauterize, or to burn away unwanted
growths... A year ago, she died of causes unrelated to this operation.
The lawsuit is being continued by her widower....

She is dead; I am retired. We are two ghosts brought into a courtroom
to battle over ''money damages.'' Would it not be more sensible, I
wonder, to delay the trial a while? The way things are going, it ought
not to be too long before she and I can sit down together and discuss
it in heaven. Or wherever. Still, I have to hand it to her. She had
taken her grievance to seven malpractice lawyers, each of whom turned
it down. Undaunted, she became her own lawyer, wrote up the documents,
met the court deadlines. In legal parlance it is called pro se. Then,
at last, she found a lawyer who agreed, with enthusiasm, to take her
case. Together, they would spend the rest of her life in this pursuit.
Such persistence, such stamina surely ought to be rewarded, you say?
Let us see.

...Yesterday a headline appeared across four columns of the front page
in The New Haven Register: ''City Surgeon May Face 'King of Torts.' ''
It seems that their lawyer has put it abroad that Melvin Belli will be
his co-counsel. The rest of the article reports the allegation that I
have ''badly botched'' the operation, that since, and because of, my
ministrations the patient suffered greatly, that I have written
''several books of fiction,'' that the amount of money sought is $2.6

[an account of the trial occupies much of the article...]

...At 11:45, a recess is called. The lawyers repair to the judge's
chambers. The rest of us scurry out to the casbah....At 1:30, the
lawyers emerge. ''They have come down to $50,000. How about it?'' my
lawyer says. ''How about what?'' ''They have spent four years on this
case. Their lawyer feels it is worth something. He wants to get a
little something out of it.'' ''No,'' I say. ''It is too late.'' At 2
o'clock, the court is reconvened. ''Banc!'' is hollered. We all rise,
then sit. The judge speaks to the jurors.

''Ladies and gentlemen, this case has been withdrawn.'' He thanks them
for their time and patience.

''Smile,'' my lawyer says. ''You won.'' But I cannot smile. I feel no elation.

It took the same amount of time for the whole world to be created as
it did to establish my innocence.

On the steps of the courthouse, my lawyer and I shake hands and say
goodbye. Can the gates of hell swing open so lightly?

....In the newspaper that night, a small piece - ''Malpractice Suit
Withdrawn'' - with the insinuation that money must have been paid. The
last rattle of the snake's tail.


I hope this provides you all the information you need.  But if
anything here requires elaboration, or is unclear, just let me know by
posting a Request for Clarification, and I'll be happy to assist you


search strategy:  Searched Google and various databases for:

"richard selzer"

"richard selzer" aids

"richard selzer" malpractice

Request for Answer Clarification by pamelamd-ga on 17 Feb 2004 22:41 PST
Ahh, it is my fault, because I did not ask the question clearly
enough.  Sure, Richard Selzer was involved in one (pretty pathetic)
malpractice case--which involved tort law.  That info is pretty much
easy to get to--although I had forgotten that it he discussed it in
Down From Troy, a book I thought I had around here somewhere.)  But
the case involving assisted suicide was a criminal case, since,
performing an assisted suicide was--and still is--against the law.  I
don't know if this was discussed in the play...I guess I'll have to go
trudging through it to see--but in the real world--somebody in some
prosecuters office pointed out--at one point--that what Selzer was
writing about actually involved a case of voluntary manslaughter--he
was never charged of course but somewhere there is a record of a
prosecuter questioning Selzer about it.
I'm looking specifically at the issue of "doctors who write" and when
they get themselves into trouble.  For example: Another case was the
JAMA article from long ago called "it's over Debby" in which the
Chicago prosecutors office threatened prosecution of the doctor who
wrote it (probably the "case" had been composed by some rather
creative editor.)
Sorry about the T.
Anything more you can add would be appreciated.  Thanks,
Pam G

Clarification of Answer by pafalafa-ga on 18 Feb 2004 05:08 PST
Hello again Pam.

Thanks so much for the kind rating...even though you didn't quite get
the answer you wanted.  I much appreciate your understanding, in that

I've had another look at a variety of databases, including some legal
articles that discusses the Selzer assisted suicide story.  Among
these were:
Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Fall, 2000 "Telling Stories About
Cases and Clients: The Ethics of Narrative" Binny Miller
The John Marshall Law Review, Fall, 1997 "THIS IS WHO WILL DIE WHEN

University of Richmond Law Review, March, 1998 "LEAVING THE DOOR AJAR:
THE ART OF DYING", Eugenie Anne Gifford


None of these made any mention of actual involvement of the police or
prosecuters in the case Selzer wrote about, although one does make
mention of Selzer's decision not to attend the actual attempted
suicide in the hopes he could avoid legal entanglement.

If you can remember where/how you heard about this -- any additional
details would help -- perhaps I can track it down.

I'm going to continue searching, and if anything turns up, I'll be
sure to let you know.

Thanks again.


Request for Answer Clarification by pamelamd-ga on 18 Feb 2004 22:05 PST
You are fantastic!  Do you have any idea about how I can get the following?
Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Fall, 2000 "Telling Stories About
Cases and Clients: The Ethics of Narrative" Binny Miller."  Also is
there a way I can send you an additional twenty dollars for a million
dollar answer?  And are you free Saturday nigh. . . .  Well, um, just
need the first two questions answered.

Scanned your previous investigations. . . forgot to tell you the legal
case was in Australia!?! . . . this business looks like it might be a
tad frustrating. . .

Pam G.

Clarification of Answer by pafalafa-ga on 19 Feb 2004 05:14 PST
Hello again Pam,

I am *blushing* here.  Just let me go ask my wife if we have plans for
Saturday, and I'll get right back to you...!

As for getting a copy of the article, the easiest way is just to ask a
librarian to get it through interlibrary loan.  But if that's not an
option, you can try either of these options:

(1) Get it from Georgetown U.


you'll find a link to the Law Journal itself, where it says:

Single issues of the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics are available for $12.50. 

phone at (202) 662-9423, e-mail at, or mail at:

Georgetown University Law Center
Office of Journal Administration
attn: subscriptions
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001 

Contact them to see if they have the Fall 2000 issue available for sale.


(2) Try Lexis-Nexis

Head to:

and click on:

"Pay as you go"

It's a bit have to reigister, supply a credit card,
select a password, etc, etc.  But after it's all done, click on:

 "Legal Sources" 

and then select "Secondary Legal" (which is what they call Law Reviews) 

and then do a search on [ Telling Stories About Cases and Clients ].

The Miller article will be one of the results.  Click on it, authorize
a charge to your credit card ($9 per article), and the article should
pop right up.


Thanks so much for offering to raise the fee to something a bit closer
to the million dollars that this information is obviously worth.  For
future reference, it is possible to tip a researcher for a good answer
(or even for a bad answer, if you're so inclined) but it needs to
happen before the question is rated, which effectively closes the

If you're *really* desperate to offer additional compensation, then
just post a $2 question with the subject Attention: Pafalafa-ga, and
ask me any question of your choice (e.g. What's my favorite TV show?) 
You will then be able to add a tip to that question, if the spirit
moves you.  (Why not just post a question for $20, you may
ask....because researchers get 100% of the tip, which is not the case
with the fee itself).

Hope we'll see you back here at GA one day soon.  

pamelamd-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
I asked the question in an ambiguous way--I got a great answer but to
a  slightly different question.  This was the questioner's (my) fault.

Subject: Re: Richard Seltzer MD in hot water over something he wrote.
From: majortom-ga on 17 Feb 2004 09:37 PST
Richard Seltzer wrote an autobiography in which he discusses this:

but I don't have a copy so I can't answer your question.  

There was a play made about this essay:

And here's a list of annotated works by Richard Seltzer:

I hope that's helpful.

Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy