Published October 21, 2021
For UB pharmacology professor Harvey Berman, death isn’t a doomsday lurking on the horizon. Instead, he believes it should be painted in a positive light, where we use it as motivation to live every day to the fullest.
“I make the point that death is inevitable,” Berman says. “It can be kind of a positive thought: If you are aware of death — and I hate to sound like a TV beer commercial — you realize you only go around once in this life. My hope is to highlight that.”
This lesson is one of many enlightening the minds of UB first-year students in Berman’s latest seminar, “Death and Dying: A Guide for the Perplexed” (PMY199). The course is part of the UB Freshman Seminar series aimed at introducing incoming students to academic research and the UB Libraries. However, Berman, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, feels the topic of death and dying provides an interesting platform for discussion, writing and research.
He structured the course around a variety of debate topics that give students a chance to reflect on death and its complicated nature.
“When does death occur, much like when does life begin?” he asks.
Students question the unintended consequences of legalizing assisted suicide; prenatal testing; the resurgence of eugenics in medicine; the impact of commercializing organ donation; what is a good death; what is a good life; and is an immortal life a good human life.
“It’s a very slippery slope,” Berman explains. “Physician-assisted suicide was originally supposed to be for patients with a diagnosed terminal illness and six months or fewer to live, not psychiatric illness or chronic illness.”
States in which physician-assisted suicide has been legalized — 11 at present and New York State is considering it — require confirmatory diagnosis by two independent physicians, Berman says. This has led to instances of “doctor shopping,” in which patients seek out physicians who will provide the diagnosis the patient desires.
“Whether you support physician-assisted suicide or not, the problem remains on how it is to be regulated,” he says. “Who makes the decision? What if the family is pushing for it, but the patient doesn’t want this outcome? What if it is used to cover up malpractice?
“I am not arguing one way or another. I am trying to make students think about if you put this into law, what are the potential consequences?”
While the course is a pharmacology seminar, PMY199 intertwines themes of medical ethics and philosophy. Berman’s own experiences and interests play a role in the design of the course.
“I work with the former chair of the philosophy department, David Hershenov, who is also co-director of the Romanell Center for Clinical Ethics and the Philosophy of Medicine. We host monthly seminars at the intersection of philosophy and medicine,” he says.
“When the pandemic first began, we conducted our seminars through Zoom — it was quite nice — and we had philosophers and physicians from around the country Zooming into our seminars.”
Berman’s interest in these subjects started over 20 years ago while teaching pharmacology. He met Jack Freer, the other co-director of the Romanell Center. In the late 1990s, he chaired monthly seminars on medical ethics in the basement of what is now Abbott Library.
“I found that my background in pharmacology and drug therapy made for a natural connection with questions in medical ethics and patient-oriented medical care,” he says. “And Jack, a self-described ‘auto-didact,’ was a perfect role model. I took to it very quickly.”
Right now, Berman’s work focuses on complicity and conscientious objection, as in the pharmacist’s denial of oral contraceptives to patients based on the pharmacist’s religious conviction.
A respected professor and accomplished researcher at UB for the past 40 years, he says his contribution to his students remains a high priority.
“The goal of this course is not to change a student’s major, but to extend the students’ range of thinking, whatever their major, to include the human element,” he says. “After all, whatever your major field of study, these are all human endeavors — subject to errors, biases, preconceived notions of what is right and wrong.
“No single subject of study is an island.”